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South Africa Human Rights Commission Examines Xenophobia

The South African Human Rights Commission is holding hearings on xenophobia. The mistreatment of foreigners is believed to be a serious problem in the country.

The Human Rights Commission is investigating the extent of xenophobia in South Africa, and its human rights implications. The government has long acknowledged that xenophobia is a widespread problem in South Africa, but there have been few concrete initiatives aimed at fighting it.

As the main economic powerhouse of the continent, South Africa has been an attractive destination for many so-called "economic migrants," as well as for refugees. But after decades of isolation during the apartheid era, many South Africans mistrust foreigners.

As the hearings opened Tuesday, the commission heard testimony that foreigners are often mistreated and discriminated against by police and the business community, and the situation is worsened by corruption within the Department of Home Affairs and the police service.

A representative of the group, Lawyers for Human Rights, described conditions at the Lindela Repatriation Center outside Johannesburg. She said officials routinely violate South Africa's own immigration laws. She said they frequently detain foreigners for longer than 30 days, and also deport them without proper asylum hearings. She said some South African citizens have been detained and deported to countries they had never even visited before.

On Wednesday, Professor Loren Landau, who heads the program on forced migration studies at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, told the commission that the total number of foreigners in South Africa probably amounts to less than two percent of the population.

"I was trying to debunk what I think are five primary myths that continue to inform South African attitudes towards foreigners and policy towards foreigners," he said. "One has to do with the numbers, and obviously the numbers are much smaller than most people seem to think. But also trying to highlight how foreigners are probably not, because of their small numbers, not a huge drain on public resources, but do seem to contribute quite a lot economically, which also goes against what most people here seem to think."

As the hearings continued Wednesday, some South Africans' attitudes towards foreigners were on display when a national radio call-in program addressed the issue of xenophobia. On state radio (SAfm), a woman calling herself Maria from Hillbrow complained about foreigners draining public resources and taking South African jobs.

"If you get one foreigner in a company, that's the end of South Africans there, they will all come into that company, they all come and work," she said.

Professor Landau from Wits University says the human rights commission probably should have held hearings on xenophobia a long time ago. But he hopes that the fact it is happening now will offer the new Home Affairs minister and others in government a chance to work together and address the problem.

"I don't think there's a particular reason why it's happened now," he said. "The conditions that have been described over the last few days are the same as they've been. But it suggests perhaps a seriousness about reconsidering some of the dysfunctional effects and the human rights abuses that have come about as a result of xenophobia and attitudes towards foreigners."

The hearings are set to continue for their third and final day Thursday. The Human Rights Commission will then issue a report to parliament, offering the lawmakers guidance on actions they should take to combat xenophobia.