Monday, November 8, 2010

New South African Immigration Laws Could Cause Humanitarian ‘Catastrophe,’ say Activists

Darren Taylor | Johannesburg, South Africa
08 November 2010

Many human rights monitors are convinced the South African government is committed to expelling as many Zimbabweans as possible, as soon as possible.

“Their harsh words recently seem to prove this. The announcement that they’re going to be deporting people next year is one that gives them the opportunity to deport very large numbers of people,” says Braam Hanekom, the founder of Cape Town-based refugee rights group, People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression, and Poverty.

New immigration legislation says only Zimbabwean migrants who the South African authorities establish are working, studying or owning businesses in South Africa, and who apply for revised residence permits by December 31 and are granted the documents, can remain in the country legally.

“We expect everyone, whether you are a foreigner or a South African, to abide by our laws…. And anyone who flouts the law will have to face the consequences,” says Jackie McKay, chief of immigration and one of the Home Affairs officials driving the state’s “Zimbabwean Regularization Project.”

The “consequences” McKay speaks of are arrest and expulsion from South Africa of all Zimbabweans who do not have the “correct” residence papers. “If you are in the provinces you are deported through the point of entry nearest to your province. If you are arrested elsewhere you will be taken to our holding center at Lindela (near Krugersdorp in Gauteng province) and from there you will be transported back to Zimbabwe,” he explains.

Up until now, the South African authorities have allowed “illegal” Zimbabweans to remain in the country under a “special dispensation.” This policy – widely praised by international human rights advocates – took into account the intense political and economic instability in Zimbabwe.

But the revised regulations governing migrants from the country north of the border, where unemployment is more than 80 percent, have reversed this policy.

Hundreds of Zimbabweans cross into South Africa daily

“All indications so far are that the government of South Africa has completely lost patience with illegal immigrants, and Zimbabweans in particular,” says Hanekom.

McKay says South Africa indeed has a “huge problem” with illegal immigration. “Things can’t go on like this, with people just pouring over the border without consequence,” he states.

The latest United Nations Refugee Agency Global Report says South Africa continues to receive the largest number of asylum applications in the world, with 222,000 applications submitted in 2009 alone.

According to analysis by South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, 300 to 400 Zimbabweans arrive in South Africa every day. The International Organization for Migration estimates there are currently up to two million illegal Zimbabwean immigrants in the country. But Gabriel Shumba, a lawyer and director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, says this figure’s “far too conservative…. I’d say it’s about double that.”

Amid the clamor of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Africans, who are trying to settle in Africa’s strongest economy, McKay says South Africa must protect its interests. “Anywhere you go in the world, deportation is a way of controlling illegal immigration. That said, this is a documentation process, not a deportation process,” he says.

Hanekom responds, “We will try our best to hold the South African government to its word that this new process is a means to document Zimbabwean immigrants, rather than to get rid of most of them.”

Into the lion’s den

Tara Polzer, of Wits University’s Forced Migration Studies Program, says South Africa’s stricter policy regarding Zimbabweans will have several “very negative” effects on some migrants.

“That does include the potential for quite a few people being arrested and deported without really having had the chance of duly getting into the systems that are being offered, just because of bureaucratic issues, because of timing issues,” she explains.
“At this stage, a lot of Zimbabweans will be deported next year….There will be mass deportations,” says Austin Moyo, the leader in South Africa of the MDC, one of the parties that shares leadership in Zimbabwe’s government.

Shumba’s convinced this will be “a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe….Some (migrants) do not even have homes or jobs to go back to.”

The lawyer says other Zimbabweans who don’t qualify for the new residence documents fled to South Africa after suffering political persecution. Deporting them, Hanekom maintains, will be their “death sentence.”

Shumba agrees, saying, “It will be like throwing them into the lion’s den because they hold political opinions that are at variance with (President Robert Mugabe’s) ZANU-PF (party) and these people will be targeted – myself, for example.”

Monitors say in advance of a proposed election next year, heightened tension between the two main players in Zimbabwe’s unity government, Mr. Mugabe and the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai, sets the scene for intensified violence in the near future.

“With what we have seen during the constitutional outreach process, violence is going to be on the increase. It can even be dangerously higher than 2008,” says Shumba.

“The reality is that if there’s another election in Zimbabwe there’s no guarantee for the Zimbabwean people that they won’t be beaten up, they won’t be assaulted, they won’t be killed; that they won’t suffer the same kind of violence they suffered in (election) 2008,” says well-known Zimbabwean academic, Elinor Sisulu.

New policy won’t stop illegal immigration

McKay says he can’t comment on Zimbabweans’ fears of being forced back to their unstable homeland.

“All that I will say is that we have laws in South Africa. Our mandate as the Department of Home Affairs and more specifically the Department’s immigration section is to regularize movement into South Africa, and people need to have correct documentation for that. And that is internationally accepted. And that is what we will do, and that is what we will police,” he emphasizes.

Many Zimbabweans say if they’re deported, they’ll return to South Africa illegally as soon as possible. McKay says his government will respond by “stepping up military operations” on the border. “We believe that we will be doing enough to keep out people that want to enter South Africa illegally,” he says.

But Polzer says the South African authorities “just don’t have the capacity” to fully prevent illegal immigration from Zimbabwe. “The borders are so porous; even with all these extra army patrols, Zimbabweans are entering and leaving whenever they want and relatively few get caught,” she says.

According to Sisulu, “no matter what laws are made” migration from Zimbabwe to South Africa will continue for as long as Zimbabwe’s ravaged economy relies on US dollars and South African rands. “Where do people get access to that money, unless they work outside (of Zimbabwe)?” she asks.

Sisulu adds that illegal immigration will also carry on as long as there’s political violence in Zimbabwe. “The reality is that a fresh election is going to cause an outflow of people again (because of violence). The same people the South African government will deport are going to be heading back across the border to South Africa as soon as there’s another election.”

‘Genuine’ reform in Zimbabwe before deportations

Moyo says the MDC is advocating “a managed repatriation of Zimbabweans” living illegally in South Africa, rather than “a wave” of deportations. “We need foreign direct investment into Zimbabwe, to create fresh employment, which can absorb those people that are coming back into the country,” he says. “And that sort of big investment is going to take quite a long time, because the international community still has little confidence in Zimbabwe.”

Sisulu’s convinced the “real solution to uncontrolled Zimbabwean migration in South Africa is a genuine political solution in Zimbabwe which guarantees the security of the Zimbabwean people.”

When this happens, she maintains, “the natural consequence will be re-investment in Zimbabwe, and life will begin to improve for ordinary Zimbabweans. Such improvement on the ground will naturally stem the flow of migration into South Africa.”

Moyo also calls on South Africa to wait until there’s “true political reform” in Zimbabwe before deporting Zimbabwean migrants and to therefore extend its deadline for applications for new residence permits.

“We’ve got a pending election in Zimbabwe. We’re hoping that, because the next election will be run under a new constitution and a new electoral act and there will hopefully be credible international monitors, the election will be free and fair,” he says. “So we are saying to the South African government, at least wait until that election goes through.”

Only after the polls, says Moyo, will South Africa be in a position to make a “clear judgment” about whether or not it’s stable enough for Zimbabweans to return to their homeland.

If violence mars another Zimbabwean election, says Shumba, the South African authorities should suspend immigration reforms pertaining to Zimbabweans, and should exercise “leniency” with regard to Zimbabweans in South Africa illegally, “in the interests of basic human rights.”

But in the meantime, South Africa’s head of immigration is unmoved by all the controversy and comment surrounding the implications of the new policy.

Jackie McKay says both the Zimbabwean and the South African governments have agreed that all Zimbabweans in South Africa illegally “should now return home” and he has “no intention of backtracking” on this agreement.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

African and Caribbean students often target of bullying, activist tells city panel

Wed, Oct. 27, 2010
By Kristen A. Graham

A growing population of African and Caribbean immigrant students in Southwest Philadelphia is often the target of racial teasing and violence in city public schools, a community activist told city officials Tuesday.

As an immigrant from Sierra Leone 30 years ago, Carol Bangura was teased and targeted, labeled a behavior problem, and kicked out of several schools.

"A lot of what the kids are experiencing now, I experienced years ago," Bangura said in testimony before the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. "It's time to stop."

The commission Tuesday held the 10th in a series of hearings on intergroup tension and violence in city schools. The meetings were prompted by racial violence at South Philadelphia High.

After the hearings, the commission will present a report to the district highlighting not just trouble spots, but also best practices.

Bangura said that while the Philadelphia School District had been cooperative and met with her on several occasions, violence against African and Caribbean students was still a problem. Students are picked on because of their accents, clothes, or even the way they smell, and little is done about it, according to Bangura.

Bullying, Bangura said, occurs every day, even in elementary school.

"There's a lot of physical violence, especially in the older kids," said Bangura, who runs the African Center for Education and Sustainability, a nonprofit that works with African students in Southwest Philadelphia.

The plight of African and Caribbean immigrant students is particularly tough because some come to the United States speaking English, and so don't qualify for special services. And because their skin is black, they get lumped in with the district's African American students, so it's tough to quantify them.

"These students, new immigrants, are left to sink or swim on their own," she said. "They're not given any services to get acclimated to a new educational system."

Still, Bangura said the district lately has been "very receptive" to the issues and is more aware of the problem.

The district recently hired a staffer who speaks multiple African dialects and French to work in the Southwest area. And Lucy Feria, deputy chief of multilingual curriculum and programs, said that the district is "much closer to looking to add" services such as tutoring, cultural sensitivity for teachers, and workshops for parents of African and Caribbean students.

Len Rieser, executive director of the nonprofit Education Law Center, said that in terms of language access services, "some schools do it well and some schools don't do it well. The struggle has been to create uniformity."

In the last few years, Rieser said, "I think they're concerned about language access, and they've taken some good steps recently."

1st Black Mayor in Slovenia Says Race Was Not a Factor

By Brittany Hutson
OCTOBER 26, 2010

t’s a flashback to 2008 when the U.S. celebrated the election of Barack Obama as its first Black president. Only this time the victory is across the Atlantic Ocean in Slovenia, a country located near Italy, Austria and Croatia with a population of 2 million. The election of Dr. Peter Bossman, a Ghana-born physician, is a recent accomplishment for the Black Diaspora.

The 54-year-old has been a resident of Slovenia since the 1970s. He came to study medicine when the country was still part of Yugoslavia. A member of the Social Democrat party, Bossman won a runoff election on Sunday in Piran, a town with a 17,000 population in southwestern Slovenia, with 51.4 percent of votes. Reports say he could be the first black mayor elected in his region of Europe.

Slovenia natives comprise 83.1% of the country. The number of Africans are said to be few. Political analyst Vlado Miheljak told the Associated Press that this election was a test to see whether Slovenia was “mature enough to elect a nonwhite political representative.” Bossman told Reuters that he felt people did not want to be around African immigrants when he first came to Slovenia. But within the last 10 to 15 years, he believes people no longer look at the color of his skin.

During the campaign, Bossman promised to introduce electric cars and boost Internet shopping. Additionally, he hopes to boost tourism—the backbone of the town’s economy—by developing an airport and golf course.

Though he is nicknamed “The Obama of Piran,” Bossman said he is ‘no Obama’ and does not plan to seek a higher office, said the Irish Times.

Trafficking of Haitian children up

OCT 24, 2010 12:22 AM

BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic After several days of going hungry, Marie said she surrendered to sexual propositions made by several men in the park where she begged in a resort town in the south of the Dominican Republic.

Marie, 12, said she had sex with "many" of those men, sometimes for a dollar, while her cousins, 13 and 10, begged European and American tourists for coins.

"I was hungry; I lost everything; we didn't know what to do," said Marie, explaining her decision to sell her body on the streets of Boca Chica.

The three children told reporters from El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald that they left Port-au-Prince with the help of a smuggler after the Jan. 12 earthquake devastated the city.

Today, the children sell boiled eggs for 10 cents all day, walking in the sun along Duarte Avenue, a bustling runway for juvenile prostitution in the heart of Boca Chica, where newly arrived Haitian girls sashay, offering their bodies to gray-haired tourists.

The story of Marie and her cousins has become commonplace: Since the earthquake, more than 7,300 boys and girls have been smuggled out of their homeland to the Dominican Republic by traffickers profiting on the hunger and desperation of Haitian children and their families. In 2009, the figure was 950, according to one human rights group that monitors child trafficking at 10 border points.

Several smugglers said they operate in cahoots with crooked officers in both countries - their versions verified by a U.N. Children's Fund report and child advocates on both sides of the border.

"All the officials know who the traffickers are but don't report them. It is a problem that is not going to end because the authorities' sources of income would dry up," said Regino Martínez, a Jesuit priest and director of the Border Solidarity Foundation in Dajabon, a Dominican border town.

Martínez has denounced the problem to the heads of CESFRONT, the Dominican Republic's Specialized Corps for Borderland Security.

After the earthquake, which killed an estimated 300,000 people, leaders in both nations pledged to protect children from predatory smuggling, a historic problem.

And the problem became an international scandal after members of a church group from Idaho tried to take 33 children from Haiti to an orphanage it was establishing in the Dominican Republic. For that they were charged with kidnapping and jailed. Yet one month later, without headlines, smugglers moved 1,411 Haitian out of the country, according to one child protection group in Haiti.

The newspaper found that the trafficking of children continues. Reporters witnessed smugglers carrying children across a river, handing them to other grownups, who put the kids on motorcycles and sped off to shantytowns. Border guards, charged with preventing this operation, witnessed the incidents and never reacted, reporters found.

Dominican President Leonel Fernandez did not respond to interview requests, but his office sent an e-mail saying that the government has intensified border security, prosecutions and sanctions against smugglers.

But Dominican immigration records show it has only made two convictions since 2006. And 800 children a month are brought into the Dominican Republic through different northern border crossings by a loose network of dealers, according to figures from Jano Sikse Border Network, which monitors human rights abuses along the border. The traffickers charge an average of $80 per head.

Vice Admiral Sigfrido Pared, the Dominican Republic's director of migration, called the figures plausible, even if his own agency does not track trafficking.

"It might be, but whether they are five, 10 or 20 is worrisome because we know that most of the children are [brought here] to be exploited on the streets by Dominican and Haitian adults."

The smugglers told reporters they travel unhindered hundreds of miles, through both countries, with caravans of children, with the protection of border patrols, soldiers and immigration officials.

Since February, reporters for El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald visited every clandestine station in the scabrous route children are forced to take.

On this journey, children and traffickers told the newspaper, kids go arm in arm through rivers and jungles; they are shoved onto motorcycles or into buses; some are forced to walk as long as three days without food. Other kids are kidnapped to pressure parents to pay the full price of the trip; some - as young as 2 - have been abandoned by the smugglers halfway through the journey.

Nelta, a slender 13-year-old Haitian, said she walked for three days with two other young girls to reach the Dominican Republic. She said a female trafficker left them at a hideout in Santiago de los Caballeros, the country's second-largest town.

"A man raped me in the shelter," said Nelta, who said she left Juanamendez, a Haitian border town, without her mother's knowledge after the earthquake.

"I can't go home empty-handed," she said softly, watching her words in front of the woman who took her to the Dominican Republic. She survived by begging on street corners under a red traffic light. In August, she returned home.

The buscones, as the smugglers are known, not only deliver children on request. They also deliver them a la carte to strangers.

Despite the horror stories, scores of Haitians of all ages - 250,000 this year, according to Pared - have long turned to the Dominican Republic because they believe there are more jobs in construction, tourist and service sectors.

The child trafficking occurs despite the governments of Haiti and the Dominican Republic signing treaties and laws to combat it.

A U.S. State Department report this year concluded that the Dominican Republic "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so."

According to the report, since 2007 the Dominican government has not convicted any traffickers or government officials involved in trafficking.

Imam Is a Shepherd to West African Immigrants in Harlem

November 2, 2010

ong before daylight breaks in Harlem, the imam Souleimane Konaté puts on a wide embroidered robe and wakes up his wife, Assiata, so she can pray in their one-bedroom apartment while their 9-year-old daughter Fanta sleeps.

Mr. Konaté (pronounced Ko-NAH-tay) then walks four blocks in the dark to his mosque, Masjid Aqsa, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 116th Street. He passes the lowered grates of shops that sell African beauty products, halal meats and bolts of bright cloth. He passes stragglers headed home from late-night carousing.

At the mosque, the imam leads the first of the five daily Muslim prayers. Prayer gives a meter to each day. The rest of his work is improvisation.

As the leader of a thriving African mosque, Mr. Konaté, 55, an immigrant from Ivory Coast, straddles two worlds on the same New York map. For politicians, police officers and immigrant advocates, the imam is a bridge to the city’s growing African Muslim immigrant population. For recent arrivals, mostly French speakers from West Africa, he serves as translator and all-purpose guide to life in America.

“I’d describe it as a religious leader at the same time as a social worker,” said Mr. Konaté, a youthful-looking man with an easy smile. “A lawyer, a defender and a liaison between the community and the government of the city.”

One of his congregants, Ramatu Ahmed, a community activist from Ghana, likened the imam to a compass for new arrivals.

“You come to a country, where your father is not there, your mother is not there,” Ms. Ahmed said. “You don’t know anybody. You are like a newly born baby.”

Mr. Konaté’s cramped office on the balcony overlooking the mosque’s main prayer space is filled with boxes for donations to buy a new building, a well-used coffee pot and photographs of the imam with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg; Gov. David A. Paterson; Abdoulaye Wade, the president of Senegal; and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

From his silver-topped staff to his pointed slippers, the imam always likes to dress appropriately, but at times he leaves traditional solemnity behind. At an African Union celebration last year, the imam danced a bit, shocking some congregants.

“I said, ‘I’m a human being like yourself, people,’ ” Mr. Konaté said. “Let me enjoy myself.”

Immigrants seek him out for all manner of reasons: an arrest, a diagnosis of H.I.V. or a fear of being deported. His cellphone sounds at all hours — its ringtone is the Muslim call to prayer.

When Cheikh Ibrahim Fall, a Senegalese immigrant, could not pay his bills after an operation for a hernia, he asked Mr. Konaté for help. Mr. Konaté persuaded officials at Harlem Hospital Center to reduce Mr. Fall’s bill.

When people in the neighborhood have problems, Mr. Fall said, “you got to go right there and talk to him about what he can do to help.”

Mr. Konaté worked with the city and others to establish a health clinic at Harlem Hospital Center set up to cater to the needs of Muslim immigrants from West Africa. Translators who speak multiple African languages help patients leery of seeking medical care because they lack insurance or are here illegally. The clinic also accommodates patients who prefer, for religious reasons, to be seen by doctors of the same sex.

Mr. Konaté said many African immigrants were unaccustomed to having access to health care.

“We find out that many brothers and sisters in the community, they have AIDS but they didn’t know about it,” he said. Workers at the clinic now routinely ask patients if they can perform an H.I.V. test.

On Fridays, Mr. Konaté delivers impassioned sermons in French, English and Arabic, combining religious messages with calls for civic and political engagement. He reminds congregants to visit the health clinic. If they get sick, he asks, who will send money home to their families?

Mr. Konaté has steered clear of saying much about the controversy surrounding a proposed Islamic center and mosque near ground zero, even though it has been a dominant topic of conversation among many local Muslims. If it is ever built, however, he says he would like to preach there.

“I will get myself involved to educate all New Yorkers and all Americans about the goodness and nonviolence in the Koran,” Mr. Konaté said.

Africans from all over the continent have quietly transformed different corners of New York. On West 116th Street in the Little Africa of central Harlem, sentences that begin in French often flow into Wolof, Peul or Mr. Konaté’s native Mandingo language.

The number of African-born immigrants in New York has increased to nearly 125,000 in 2009 from 78,500 in 2000, according to census estimates, but immigrant advocates believe the number is far higher.

Many African immigrants arrive from countries with long histories of military rule or police corruption and must adapt to local law enforcement practices.

In the New York Police Department’s 28th Precinct, in Harlem, Mr. Konaté teaches officers basic Muslim customs, like removing one’s shoes in a mosque.

“There’s always going to be a little bit of a barrier between police officers and an immigrant community,” said Deputy Inspector Rodney Harrison, the precinct’s commanding officer. “He’s allowed us to become much more intimate with the African community.”

Mr. Konaté has also helped resolve misunderstandings of greater consequence. “In Africa, for example, if a police officer asks you to stop, you run away,” he said, because to stop when accused is considered a sign of guilt.

Becoming a religious leader was never part of the imam’s plan. He studied Islamic law in Egypt, then communications in Saudi Arabia, where he lived for 12 years and worked as a reporter, covering West Africa for Saudi news publications. In 1992, he moved to New York, hoping to get a doctoral degree in communications.

Unable to afford school, Mr. Konaté worked at McDonald’s, a grocery store and several restaurants.

Like many African immigrants at the time, Mr. Konaté prayed at African-American mosques in Harlem. He helped found Masjid Aqsa in 1996, so that new African immigrants could hear services in their native languages. He became the spiritual leader a few months later.

Now, Masjid Aqsa has outgrown its space. About 1,200 congregants show up for Friday prayers. On Sundays, hundreds of children gather to learn the Koran. They study in two shifts, filling the mosque with the cacophony of young voices.

To resolve its space needs, the congregation is working to raise $2 million to buy a larger building a few blocks away.

On Mondays, the one day off he allows himself, Mr. Konaté retreats to the home of relatives in East Orange, N.J. He needs to leave the city, he said, to catch up on his sleep. Still, his cellphone keeps him tethered to life across the Hudson River.

“But I’m good here in New York,” Mr. Konaté said. “I’m not going nowhere till I finish, my mission is complete.”

An imam’s work is lifelong, he said. There is no such thing as a former imam.