South Africa: To be recognised as a human being

10 April 2019|Gugu Angela Mngadi, JRS South Africa volunteer

A member of JRS's health team attends to a patient in her home in Johannesburg. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
A member of JRS's health team attends to a patient in her home in Johannesburg. (Jesuit Refugee Service)

Gugu Angela Mngadi is volunteering as a paralegal for the Jesuit Refugee Service in South Africa. 

Johannesburg – Refugees and asylum seekers living in South Africa encounter unjust challenges when accessing healthcare facilities, violating their basic human rights. The legal status for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants is unclear. This ambiguous distinction, or lack thereof, is due to an inadequacy of knowledge within South Africa. The failure to definitively establish the status of these individuals leads to an increasing rate of intolerance and xenophobia. It is also important to define what is guaranteed under the basic human right of healthcare. The right to healthcare entitles every individual to the highest standard that is attainable with regards to physical and mental health. This includes access to all medical services, sanitation, adequate food, decent housing, healthy working environments, and respectable working conditions. In addition, the South African Constitution enshrines the obligation to respect every person’s rights and prevents the state from denying or limiting access to healthcare services, which should be available to every person on a non-discriminatory basis. (Republic of South Africa 6 Section 27 (2) Act 108 of 1996). But adequate healthcare services are consistently denied to refugees and asylum seekers, on both a grassroots and systemic level, despite the fact that the South African law requires that they are treated in the same manner as South African nationals.

The ongoing abuse of refugees and asylum seekers can be affronted at a political level, but it won’t be resolved until it is tackled on a human level.
Gugu Angela Mngadi, JRS South Africa volunteer

Refugees and asylum seekers are forced to pay expensive fees or cash at the time of service. In many cases, these payments are pocketed by corrupt healthcare administrators. Those whose documents are not up to date, or who lack them completely, face additional challenges and can even be refused service. Others, with treatable, life-threatening diseases and disorders become so frustrated in attempting to access basic treatments like kidney dialysis that they resign themselves to an inhumane death.

I believe there is a considerable role played by xenophobia when reviewing these challenges. During the short period of time that I have been volunteering with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), I have witnessed several violations to our Constitution and legal framework. These transgressions against refugees and asylum seekers are carried out by fellow South Africans in most cases. Xenophobia is characterized by a prejudiced discourse, usually operating on the basis of profiling people and making negative assumptions based on nationality. As South Africa becomes an industrialised country, it has attracted many foreign nationals who seek refuge from poverty, economic crisis, war, and governmental persecution in their home countries. As a result, South Africans find it hard to accept refugees and asylum seekers as human beings. There is anger and frustration at the increasing rate of migration, and more subscribe to the distorted belief that refugees and asylum seekers are seizing limited employment and housing opportunities in the country.

The South African Constitution, legislature, and government do not consider the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers at healthcare facilities. These attitudes are then adopted by the entire state, and severely affect how South Africa welcomes refugees and asylum seekers.
Gugu Angela Mngadi, JRS South Africa volunteer

Unfortunately, many do not consider the hardships faced by refugees and asylum seekers when leaving their homes in pursuit of a better life. There is no recognition of the losses these vulnerable individuals suffered. Many were forced to leave behind families, loved ones, and ancestral homes. Some walked for days, crossing multiples borders, while evading armed conflicts. There is a dire situation within South Africa that needs to be addressed. The policies, laws, and procedures of the country could adequately address the problems experienced by refugees and asylum seekers, but, until they are recognised as human beings, proper action can not take place.

Read more about the challenges refugees and asylum seekers face when trying to access healthcare facilities in South Africa.