Thursday, June 13, 2013

Student Internship Reflection: Africa Unite - Rae Doyle

            Globalization, despite being a process that began long, long ago, is now a phenomenon with which we seem to be infatuated. Fascinated by the melding and exchange of cultures, and by the figurative “shrinking” of our enormous planet, we are always talking of the global flow of goods and ideas.  Whether we regard it as the golden ticket that enabled our economies, and therefore our lives, to thrive, or as the root of evil that has perpetuated the exploitation of one part of the world by another, we seem to be constantly applying our concept of globalization to our understanding of the future of our world. The implications of an increasingly connected world give rise to a greater need for international cooperation and agencies to resolve issues that involve our entire global community. However, my experience in Cape Town has caused me to realize that one issue most in need of international address is one we often disassociate from the consequences of globalization.  I think that is it the global movement of people about which we should be most concerned and that in the coming decades immigration issues will take center stage in the international discourse on globalization.
            I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that it took interning on the other side of the planet for me to really get interested in an topic that is debated in my own country everyday.  Africa Unite, the human rights organization I am working with, finds itself dealing with immigration almost by default.  The eclectic, community-based non-profit is almost entirely staffed by foreign nationals, with a director from the Democratic Republic of Congo, project coordinators and peer educators from all over the continent, and a constant inflow of international interns.  That our office finds itself dwelling on issues of human migration and borderless human rights only makes sense. Ourselves foreigners in this country, we are in love with this cosmopolitan city, and in love with the overwhelming cocktail of cultures that fills our small workspace.  I’ve learned so much about the diversity of life on this continent just from the small talk of my coworkers. Everyday office conversation is the proud or mournful announcements of the newspaper headlines of our respective countries and by midafternoon everything is layered with a half a dozen different languages. Without the processes that allowed the foreign members of Africa Unite’s team to reside in the country, our office would be barren and our organization would lose some of its greatest resources.  Though this reality is little acknowledged out loud, I think that is on all of our minds when we do any sort of advocacy or awareness work regarding migrant and refugee rights. It is hard to swallow when we talk to individuals suffering in South Africa for the simple, unalterable fact they were born on foreign soil.
            The work I have been doing with Africa Unite has been highly varied, but most projects have involved some aspect of migrant and refugee issues.  Some of these issues are person-to-person conflicts resulting from the sudden mixing of cultures, while others are focused on national policies and the suppression of rights by the state. Last week I helped organize a community dialogue regarding the realities and consequences of xenophobia in Cape Town.  We organized a group of both native South Africans and foreign nationals living in the township, Nyanga, to discuss the causes of and possible solutions for unreasonable discrimination based on ethnic and cultural differences. It is well known that the country experienced intense outbreaks of xenophobic violence in 2008, and some of the stories told gave testament to this reality. One woman explained that during the 2008 attacks she and her children were forced to run away from the city and camp out on an isolated beach for days before feeling safe enough to return to any populated area. However, other stories served as proof that xenophobic violence is an ongoing problem that urgently needs to be addressed in many South African communities.
            The project I am currently working on involves creating a report to document the vast number of difficulties facing refugees and asylum seekers as a result of unreasonably short permit extensions and the inability to meet with Home Affairs. There has been a recent  trend in granting these migrants temporary permits only valid for one month, a time frame so short it prevents them from exercising the rights the permit provides in the first place. These permits are often issued to allow those with pending refugee status to study and seek employment.  However, no company will hire an individual with paperwork that says he or she must leave the country in 30 days.  Similarly, students are unable to complete exams if their permits expire, but standing in line at Home Affairs to obtain an extension takes days and frequently forces them to miss their tests anyway. The number of people waiting outside the refugee affairs office building is unfathomable.  The office can only serve a very small portion of the crowd each day, thus many permit holders cannot renew on time and are forced to pay high, often unaffordable late fees. Failure to do so means one must leave the country immediately. 
            I’ve been outside of Home Affairs this week with the refugees and migrants waiting in line listening to their stories and collecting information to include in my report. I can see above all else that this process is dysfunctional and in desperate need of reform. Beyond that, I have a hard time deciding where I stand in the issue.  Obviously, I want to support these individuals and advocate for their rights, but the complexity of the situation leaves me hesitant. I am torn because I can understand the issue from a human rights perspective, while also recognizing how difficult it is for a government like South Africa’s to face this huge influx of new immigrants while already struggling to provide security and economic stability for a large portion of its natural born citizens.
            I am struggling to reconcile my conflicting perspectives and to answer a thousand different questions. I look at this situation and wonder how anyone can have the power to decide who lives where.  I see the earth and its resources as belonging to all—but then, how does this translate into services provided by the state?  I talk to people who tell me they just want look for a job, but knowing that South Africa’s unemployment rate is near 28%, I can almost understand the pressure to limit working permits.  Above all, I am wondering how much any economy can really withstand with a population that is rapidly growing because of immigration.
            I made a promise to not get rant-y, and for fear that I am dangerously close to breaking that promise I will conclude with this: We truly need a better understanding of the global immigration. The constant movement of people shouldn’t be a problem, but there needs to be some resolution to cope with the disproportionate inflow of immigrants into countries like South Africa.  The reality is that this country cannot support the whole continent, despite its relative economic advantage. Thus, as with most of our toughest challenges, the long term solution is global poverty alleviation and economic empowerment of neighboring nations.  Meanwhile, non-profits like Africa Unite will continue to fight for the rights of individuals to seek security and opportunity. 
            And lastly, I love Cape Town.

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