Joburg opens migrant helpdesk

24 April 2007

Johannesburg has opened a migrant helpdesk to provide legal migrants and asylum seekers with information on basic services such as housing, education and healthcare in the city.

The helpdesk, which has been running since November, complements rather than replaces existing immigration facilities. Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo officially opened the helpdesk, based in the inner city, last week.

Masondo committed the city to ensuring the welfare of foreign residents, saying that rapid urbanisation and accompanying migration had become part of the Johannesburg landscape and had to be dealt with accordingly.

‘Diversity is an urban strength’
“Migrants contribute to the cultural diversity of and assist to create our vibrant city,” Masondo said. “We must recognise diversity as an urban strength. Like urbanisation, migration can and should be managed. It cannot be completely controlled, let alone halted.”

Besides providing foreign residents with information on basic services, the helpdesk also puts them in touch with non-governmental organisations that assist migrants and asylum seekers.

These include the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the South African Migration Project, the Wits University Law Faculty’s refugee desk, Lawyers for Human Rights, Black Sash, the Refugee Children’s Project, the Bienvenue Shelter, and Jesuit Refugee Without Voice.

“The City of Johannesburg is adopting a progressive approach with regards to ensuring that migrants to this city feel that they are part of an inclusive city,” Masondo said.

While the helpdesk should not be seen as promoting and servicing illegal migrants to the detriment of Johannesburg’s own residents, Masondo added, illegal immigrants would be dealt with in a humane and proper manner if they sought assistance.

Access to services depends on documentation verifying a person’s status as a migrant or an asylum seeker. Nori Tapiwa, the co-ordinator of the Zimbabwe Diaspora Forum, said the most pressing issues for asylum seekers were usually shelter, food and documentation when they entered the country.

In due time, para-legal advice will form a core part of the service, as it is anticipated that many migrants will look for help regarding human rights violations and harassment.

Foreigners create jobs
Xenophobia has been a major concern for the city, with research showing that migrants are far more likely to be victims of crime and are more likely to be treated with disdain and distrust.

Joyce Tlou, the national co-ordinator for non-nationals at the South African Human Rights Commission, said that the focus should move away from stereotypes.

“What is lacking is showing the visible contribution that migrants make to the city,” Tlou said.

Research by the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand confirms that foreign nationals contribute substantially to Johannesburg’s economy.

The entrepreneurial spirit of African migrants provides much-needed employment to locals, according to Professor Loren Landau, the programme’s director. “Our research shows that [migrants] are better educated and are far more entrepreneurial than their South African counterparts.”

Landau felt that the challenge for the city lay in the number of migrants who streamed in from other areas of the country, many of whom had never worked before and did not have the necessary skills.

Source: City of Johannesburg