Living with xenophobia : understanding the lived experiences of Burundian and Rwandese refugees in Durban (South Africa).
The main purpose of the study described in this report was to better understand the lived experiences of refugees from Burundi and Rwanda living in the inner city of Durban and facing xenophobia. This study was motivated by available research evidence that xenophobia is a widespread phenomenon, together with the researcher’s own experience of living as a refugee in South Africa. The investigation was guided by ‘structural social work theory’ and used a qualitative descriptive approach. The sample of the study, purposively selected using snowball sampling technique, consisted of ten adult refugees from Burundi and Rwanda who had been granted refugee status in South Africa. As a data collection tool, semi-structured interviews were conducted with the participants. To ensure trustworthiness, criteria of credibility, dependability, confirmability and transferability were taken in account. The study revealed that all the participants have fled their respective countries due to ethnic conflicts and on-going civil wars. Traumatised by the experience that had led to their flight, all ten participants were found to have been re-traumatised further along the flight, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome were common. It was possible to demonstrate that this background experience undermined participants’ ability to cope with xenophobia. Xenophobia was found to feature in the form of both interpersonal and structural violence, the latter consisting of both social and economic marginalisation and exclusion. According to the research participants, the prevailing xenophobia in South Africa can be attributed to a number of interconnected factors including: the impact of South Africa’s apartheid history on attitudes of South Africans towards black foreigners, coupled with a general lack of knowledge about who are refugees; high levels of violence coupled with an apparent social acceptability of crime; as well as the negative statements of the media about foreigners in general and refugees in particular. Against this background, participants indicated a range of coping strategies, including the following: escape from identity; psychological and social withdrawal; living in overcrowded inner city areas to cut costs of living and minimise risks of exposure to xenophobic violence; embracing self and informal employment. Based on the study findings, this research report concludes with the proposition of a number of recommendations towards curbing xenophobia in South Africa and enabling refugees to overcome past traumatic experiences, integrate and become active contributors to South Africa’s economy, in line with the qualifications that they may have attained prior to flight. To this end, contributions are required of everyone concerned with the refugees’ integration including the South African government, the media, the social work profession, the refugees themselves, as well as the communities amongst which they live. Much more research needs to be done to increase social workers’ understanding of the needs of refugees and of xenophobia, and to guide appropriate professional responses.
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