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Action needed to help migrants
19 August 2008

City officials, academics and activists took part in the third Hague International Migration Workshop on Friday, 15 August

Local and international organisations have called for immediate action to help immigrants to Johannesburg, who are faced with challenges such as language barriers and lack of access to government services.

Refik Bismilla, executive director of health discusses migration. Bismilla said an increasing number of foreign nationals are visiting the City's 87 clinics
Refik Bismilla, executive director of health discusses migration. Bismilla said an increasing number of foreign nationals are visiting the City's 87 clinics

DRASTIC action is needed to address the challenges faced by immigrants in South Africa. This is the word of Zonke Majodina, the deputy chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, who called for immediate action to deal with these issues.

Majodina was speaking at the third Hague International Migration Workshop on Friday, 15 August. The workshop was held at Constitution Hill from 13 to 15 August, hosted by the City of Johannesburg. Government departments and non-governmental organisations from around the world attended, and discussions centred on migration, urban inclusion and citizenship.

"The problem lies within our system. There are many immigrants in the country who have never or not yet accessed the doors of Home Affairs, to apply for refugee status," she said. "The sad part is that some of them are forced to sleep outside Home Affairs [offices] for many weeks just to be able to see the officials."

To fix this, Majodina proposed that government departments work together to plan policies and programmes that included everyone.

"South Africa does not have an option but to make decisions that manage the influx of refugees efficiently. The country is losing millions of rand everyday through the deportation of illegal immigrants because of failure to follow the procedures," she said.

In addition, despite the serious skills shortage, migrant skilled labour was not being used by the local market because many employers did not know to interpret foreign qualifications. The vast majority of immigrants also could not afford the fees needed to have their qualifications converted under the South African Qualification Authority.

"There are many qualified immigrants sitting at home simply because professional bodies do not want to extend their services to them."

Manuel Carballo, the executive director of the International Centre for Migration Health and Development, based in Switzerland, agreed with Majodina, adding that it was time to establish or develop new towns with strong industrial bases to relieve the pressure on the big cities and create employment. "I think the time has come to concentrate on the distribution of population and balance of economic livelihood."

Joburg's executive director of health, Refik Bismilla, said language was a barrier, with immigrants unable to communicate in the languages in which City services were generally delivered. He noted that there was an increasing number of foreign nationals visiting the City's 87 clinics.

"Many of the immigrants do not understand English. There is a need to offer translation services at the Migrants' Helpdesk and to develop posters and literature that can aid them with information on the City in their respective languages ... We also need to find ways to popularise the Migrants' Helpdesk and link it to communities," Bismilla said.

According to non-governmental and community groups that work in migrant communities in Joburg, the biggest demand is for French, Portuguese and Swahili translators and material.

Josephine Namato, the self-reliance officer at the Jesuit Refugee Society, noted that a number of children of refugees and asylum seekers did not go to school because their parents were not able to afford school fees.

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