By Professor Jo Vearey, Wits Universty

South Africa is currently at the end of the first week of a threeweek total lockdown in an attempt to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in order to give our already struggling public healthcare system a change to ‘catch up. Community-based testing is being rolled out, a welcome intervention that is necessary to increase our testing rates; we know that without testing, lockdown alone isn’t effective. But what does this mean for the foreign nationals in South Africa?  

Foreign nationals already in the country who are from ‘high-risk’ countries (mostly in Europe), including tourists and business travellers, were given the opportunity to remain in South Africa, with action taken by the state to renew/extend their visas. Migrants from elsewhere, including within the southern African region, were not afforded such an opportunity.  This form of discrimination reflects the ways in which migrants from different parts of the world are treated; those considered wealthy are privileged over those considered to be poor.  It also reflects hypocrisy: foreign migrants are – incorrectly – blamed for the spread of disease and for placing pressure on the South African public health system. Yet the response now excludes this very group to the detriment of South Africa’s response to COVID-19. 

Also read: How do pandemics and shut borders affect the lives of people on the move?

We know that migrants from elsewhere in the southern African region, and from further afield, who are reliant on public healthcare (I.e. are without private medical insurance) struggle to access the services to which they are legally entitled. This is often due to the way they are discriminated against by frontline healthcare providers, as well as a fear of being arrested, detained and deported should they be without the documents required to be in the country legally. Xenophobia manifests in many ways in South Africa, a country that experiences chronic violence against foreign nationals and multiple forms of structural violence targeting migrants. And it is this xenophobia, without effective intervention by the state and local leadership, which is likely to affect testing and contact tracing.  

Unfortunately, the only references made by public officials to foreign migrants and COVID-19 have reinforced these xenophobic and anti-foreigner sentiments, pushing the notion that foreign migrants are somehow involved in the spread of COVID-19.  The first was in relation to the building of a border fence between South Africa and Zimbabwe. The second when the Minister for Small Businesses declared that foreign-owned spaza shops (small shops selling basic goods and an important food source for many) must be closed during the lockdown.  She cited concerns about food quality, for which there is no evidence. This helps nobody: it instils xenophobic sentiments; shops are closed and people – citizens included – are unable to access food locally which is particularly important during a time of lockdown where movement of people should be limited.  

People from other countries may be reluctant to present for testing or to report contacts that hold an irregular documentation status for fear of arrest.  We need a blanket amnesty to ensure that all in South Africa feel safe to participate in testing and for effective contact tracing. 

*this text is a shortened version of a piece currently being written for an op-ed 

Jo Vearey is associate professor and Director of the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at Wits University in Johannesburg. With a background in public health, her work explores the relationship between migration, mobility and health.  Jo is involved in a range of international and local policy processes. 


Asylum seekers returned to US from Canada face detention

By Professor Idil Atak, Ryerson University

As a response to the coronavirus pandemic, on March 20, 2020, Canada and U.S. have decided to close their common border to all but essential travel. The same day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that asylum seekers who are crossing the border irregularly from the U.S. will be turned away when they reach Canada.  

The government justified the border closure by security concerns around screening people at irregular border crossings for COVID-19. The measure has been criticized by refugee advocates in a context where the US authorities declared that immigration enforcement, including detention and removal of non-citizens would continue during the pandemic.  Canadian Council for Refugees, an NGO, expressed concerns that “people turned back to the US will be put in detention if they don’t have status. Immigration detention in the U.S. was already a serious rights violation [and] the situation is even worse now with the pandemic putting detained people at risk.”   

Since January 2017, more than 54,000 third country nationals crossed irregularly the Canada-U.S. land border between ports of entry to claim asylum in Canada. The 2004 Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement requires asylum seekers to claim refugee protection in the first safe country – the US or Canada- they pass through. It leaves no option to these individuals, but to arrive irregularly in Canada since the agreement applies only to asylum claims made at official ports of entry along the land border.  

Idil Atak is an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and in the Law School of Ryerson University, Toronto.  For many years, she has conducted research and published on the securitization of Canada’s refugee system and its implications for asylum seekers and irregular migrants. 

In the upcoming blog post Dr. Theofanis Exadaktylos from University of Surrey and Professor Francesca Longo from the University of Catania will address the situation for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Greece and Italy.