South Africa was the main destination, worldwide, for new asylum-seekers in 2006, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It is surprising then, the lack of attention that World Refugee Day and its associated gender issues got from the South African media.

Amnesty International notes that “Violence against women during conflict has reached epidemic proportions. Mass rape is frequently used systematically, as a weapon of war.”  It is not surprising, then that 80% of refugees worldwide are women and children (UNHCR, 20011).  Trafficking of women also bolsters the number of asylum seekers.  Female asylum seekers are undoubtedly more vulnerable than males in a foreign country where they can be sexually exploited, enslaved and trafficked2.  One could then expect on World Refugee Day, that refugees generally would be highlighted in the media, but in such a way as to reflect the experiences of both men and women.

The Media Monitoring Project did a quick scan of Johannesburg English dailies to see how it was covered and found that the Sowetan and The Star are the only newspapers to provide good coverage on this global event.

The commitment of Sowetan in covering refugees is shown in the editorial and in the prominent coverage on World Refugee Day (20 June) and an additional coverage the day after. The editorial entitled “Today is fear enough” (20/06/2007, pg 18) recognises the desperation that refugees experience to leave their homes. Opposite is an article about a family settling in the United States, “New life for refugees” (pg 19).

The Sowetan also covered the issue the next day (21 June), with the whole page (p. 25) dedicated to the issue of refugees. The various articles describe how South Africans discriminate against refugees and how the latter are often looked upon as a vulnerable group, yet, many refugees are highly qualified and could provide much-needed skills to the country. An earlier article on the 19th featured a family who has been waiting for six years in South Africa to have their refugee status formalised.

The Star quoted the UNHCR research in an original article titled “SA biggest recipient of asylum-seekers” (21/06/2007, pg 6). An article along side it was about the Lindela repatriation centre contract under review. None of the three articles in page 6 discussed the experiences and the difficulties faced by refugees and as such, omit the background as to why refugees flee their countries and end up in South Africa or somewhere else. Although the coverage is not xenophobic in nature, it does not raise awareness on the issue nor discuss the human rights of the refugees involved.

The Daily Sun welcomed World Refugee Day with a front page “You’re Busted! Cop with a BIG GUN wakes up aliens selling illegal IDs.” The article typically blurs the line between legal and illegal foreign nationals, calling them all “aliens.” The Daily Sun had previously (13/06/2007, pg. 2) covered another crime story allegedly involving foreign nationals entitled “Aliens bust for murder!” Periodic coverage of this nature would lead readers to believe that foreign nationals and even South Africans born elsewhere are likely to be criminals. Ironically, in the same edition, the Daily Sun mentions how South Africa will gain from foreign teachers’ skills yet the title refers to the Zimbabwean teachers as “aliens.”

The othering of immigrants, by calling them “aliens”, makes an already alienated group further vulnerable.  This is particularly true of the more vulnerable refugees, women and children.  Othering by the media in Rwanda, led to a genocide and the rape of 20% of Rwandan women3.  It would seem fair to guess that systematically calling foreign nationals “aliens” and perpetuating stereotypes about this group is a dangerous activity for refugee women and girls.

Other newspapers were silent on that day, except for a brief piece in the Business Day mentioning that 78% of Zimbabweans in Johannesburg are illegal (20/06/2007, pg. 3) and a piece about the Lindela Repatriation Centre. No mention is made however, of World Refugee Day (21/06/2007, pg. 3).

Considering the hardships that refugees go through before arriving in their host country, it seems that the media could have done a better job of challenging xenophobia and highlighting the plight of refugees on World Refugee Day. The Sowetan, however, proved that newspapers can do a good job of raising the public’s awareness on the rights of refugees4.

– Sandra Roberts

Comments, queries, suggestions? Contact Sandra Roberts on 084 9000 344, William Bird on 082 8871370 or the MMP on (011) 788 1278. For more information on xenophobia go to