By Morgan Mitchell
Experiencing sexual violence displaces you – your body, your familiar world, those you know… Everything becomes strange and unfamiliar. You think: is this me? Am I someone else now? Is this my world? What happened to the world before I was raped?
Now imagine: compound that profoundly displacement with having to flee your country: your mother tongue, your extended family, the foods, and the sights and sounds of your homeland. You are entering the world of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers crossingSouth Africa’s borders to escape war rapes or the rape that is becoming synonymous with their region or their home towns.
Refugees are both internally and externally displaced and they come toSouth Africaseeking mainly two things – safety, and to feel and be treated as humans. Legally, refugees and asylum seekers have the right to safety and equality, but this is not how it plays out.
Our Government is committed by international agreement to uphold basic human rights for refugees:
- The right to seek asylum from harm and persecution in one’s home country.
- Non-refoulement – you can’t send someone home to their country to die or be persecuted.
- The right to life, liberty, and security
- The right to legal recourse and freedom from arbitrary detention and arrest
- The right to freedom of movement and residence
- The right to benefit from fundamental economic and social rights
But refugees, already tired, and traumatized by violence, must fight for these rights inSouth Africa. Many are turned away from our borders, are humiliated, disrespected, and refused employment, the right to a bank account, and access to financial aid. Many are robbed, beaten, raped, or killed because of where they come from. I understand the terrible pain of South Africans without work, without safe places to live. But this suffering is in the context of a democracy that upholds global human rights. Many of our freedom fighters were themselves refugees who, if they had received the poor welcome and assistance that we give refugees, may never have survived to fight for our freedom.
Democracy is difficult and is won through ongoing struggle. It emerged imperfectly after painful inter-tribal wars, colonization, revolution, apartheid and global unrest. Democracy is not meant to be easy – nor are some people meant to be more equal than others in a democratic society. However, ongoing xenophobia suggests that many South Africans feel that charity should encompass only South Africa’s indigenous heritage of the last few hundred years and that it has little to do with contemporary human rights enshrined in our Constitution.
What am I asking for? How big is the “refugee problem” really in South Africa? Well… we do have high numbers of asylum seekers, but of the total number of refugees globally, southern and central Africa host only 20% or 2 million refugees. 
South Africahosts around 34% of the Southern African refugees. Seen from a broader perspective, our role is small in providing a safe haven for the millions of traumatized and displaced persons across the world. It is possible. We could be a new home for these people, a new family, a living and breathing example of a human-rights-based democracy. If we work on it, struggle for it, we can find it in ourselves.
 This data is from statistics provided by the UNHCR and covers figures reported at the end of 2009