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Refugee Capacity-Building in Cape Town

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

An April 8th article in the New York Times, chronicled the lives and deaths of the first doctors publicly reported to have died after catching the coronavirus in Britain’s National Health Service. The subtitle reads, “In a country where anti-immigrant sentiment gave rise to the Brexit movement, Britain’s health care system depends heavily on foreign doctors, who are now on the front lines fighting the epidemic.” Often, we only may think about someone’s immigration status when it confronts us personally or when immigrants are scapegoated in the news for political purposes, however, in many nations around the world, immigrants are a vital part of our everyday lives whether we recognize it or not. Even in a country like South Africa, which has suffered waves of xenophobic attacks, immigrants are a part of the socio-economic realities of the post-apartheid state.

An earlier post on this site referenced a possible scapegoating of refugees and migrants due to the inability of government to provide necessary services. This leads us to an interesting follow-up research question: In what ways do migrants and refugees contribute to the overall resiliency of the community at large, particularly in areas where governments may fall short? To try and answer this, we hypothesize that capacity-building, a necessary precursor to community resilience, should not be seen merely as a top-down strategy, but can alternatively be seen as socially produced from the “ground-up” through cooperative economic and political capacity-building. Furthermore, support from international and national endeavors in assisting these types of situations--for example by funding refugee-led CBOs and small businesses--can help those in marginalized communities, both refugees and host citizens, not only survive, but thrive. The benefits which will eventually be seen from this cooperative expansion will not only alleviate perceived burdens on host states and communities, but will foster more cooperative and inclusive relationships between state, citizens and refugees alike, ushering in an environment of integration and potential appreciation for the positive impacts refugees and migrants stand to contribute to their local communities.

One of the most illustrative cases of this phenomenon was something we personally witnessed during our recent fieldwork in Cape Town, South Africa. This included evidence of a vibrant informal network of migrant initiatives consisting of refugee-led Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) and small-businesses. In fact, almost all the organizations we spoke with were refugee-led or initiated. These examples include organizations like ARESTA which was founded in 1987 in collaboration with the British and was run by refugees. The purpose of this organization was to provide skills training for migrants and refugees while creating more social cohesion between locals and migrants through sports and other community activities. Another example is PASSOP which was founded by migrants to address the needs of LGBT migrants in Cape Town. On the business side, we saw rows of car mechanic shops started in Khayelitsha township which purportedly trained and employed local workers. There are also the Somali communities who were reputed to have set up a thriving business district in an abandoned previously-white section of downtown.

Despite multiple successes in improving social, economic, political, and environmental conditions for migrants and locals alike, these migrant-led initiatives experience consistent bureaucratic hurdles regarding access to public funding and recognition as legitimate organizations without abiding by local regulations to be led by South African citizens. This is a possible point of contention between locals and migrants as rumors and perceptions of injustice are prone to antagonizing both sides. For instance, the infighting between local marginalized populations over scarce resources make migrants wary about being too open about their lives for fear of attack. We saw this directly with one of our informants who purposely hid his credentials and identity from the local population while working and building relationships in the community. Also, organizations such as Scalabrini, who originally provided subsistence based-services such as soup kitchens to both locals and migrants, had to close a portion of these services to locals because of the spread of rumors and abuse of the system. Prescriptions here could be focused on finding ways for the government and international organizations to strengthen these formal and informal institutions to benefit both migrants and locals alike—something which is already being independently done by migrants themselves—and could be significantly expanded through state facilitation with minimal extra burden to government services.

While further research on migrant and refugee-led capacity building is needed, our initial research suggests alternative ways of viewing absorptive capacity other than the bolstering of material infrastructure or misconceived notions of refugees as merely burdens to host communities.

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