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The exodus of the South African refugee - The 'Huntley' case revisited

24th June 2011

By: Chris Watters


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Traditionally, I have been very wary of relying on statistics in the immigration context, mindful of the image conjured up by the saying attributed to WIE Gates about “the man who drowned crossing a stream with an average depth of six inches!”

However, World Refugee Day and the UNHCR’s release this week of global refugee data, has left us awash with both figures and a sense of conscience.

And some of the information buried in the UNHCR’s report, offers us serious food for thought particularly after the South African Government’s outcry about the grant of refugee status to Brandon Huntley by the Canadian government (which is currently still being tested through the Canadian court system).


The UNHCR’s report presents a breakdown, as at the end of 2010, of how many persons have fled which countries and have either applied successfully for refugee status and of how many applications are currently pending. And hiding amidst all that data is the fact that some 380 South Africans have fled this country and been recognised as refugees. And some 214 others have applied and their applications are still pending. Fortunately for our trade relations, the relevant ‘hosting’ countries have not been identified.

And before anyone misreads these figures, this is not some residue of persons who fled apartheid and who forgot to return to South Africa. These are people who require protection as refugees currently because they have been able to persuade the refugee authorities in their host country, that they cannot be adequately protected by the South African government, its police or the courts.


To ‘demystify’ the language of refugee law, these are people who have been able to persuade the relevant authorities that there is a reasonable chance that if they are returned to South Africa, they will be persecuted in South Africa on account of their race, religion, nationality, political views or membership of a particular social group. And that persecution can be either by the SA government or someone on its behalf or even a non-state party that the government is unable or unwilling to control that persecution. And the persecution cannot be some minor irritation or inconvenience. The ‘fear of persecution’ requirement usually means that the refugee must have shown that there is a serious chance of serious physical harm if he or she is returned to the country of origin.

But let’s place this data in a statistical context – that of the SADC region. Obviously, we are not generating a refugee exodus on quite the same scale as Zimbabwe or the DRC. However, Botswana has produced 53 refugees with 188 applications pending. And then 131 people have fled Mozambique as refuges and 19 more have applied for status. And bringing up the rear as the least ‘problematic’ SADC country in terms of the world’s refugee population, is Lesotho from where 11 people have fled as refugees and 5 have applied for status.

And whilst someone once said, “statistics can be made to prove anything – even the truth,” Aaron Levenstein observed (however inappropriately – but it makes the point) that “statistics are like bikinis; what they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”


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