JOHANNESBURG – Foreign nationals in South Africa suffer “routine” harassment, violence and discrimination by locals and government authorities, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.
The group said xenophobia remained widespread in South Africa despite a government action plan rolled out in May 2019 to combat “intolerance”.
In a 64-page report, HRW said foreigners are scapegoated for economic insecurity in one of the world’s most unequal societies, where unemployment sits above 30 percent.
It relayed testimonies by over 50 African and Asian nationals of “routine” and “sometimes lethal” xenophobia.
Foreigners told HRW they sometimes suffered verbal and physical harassment in their daily interactions with locals.
A common insult in South Africa is “kwerekwere”, a derogatory word for “foreigner”.
Xenophobic attacks left at least 62 people dead in 2008, while another seven were killed by similar unrest in 2015.
Violence flared again in September last year when armed mobs descended on foreign-owned businesses in and around financial hub Johannesburg.
The ensuing clashes left at least 12 people dead, of whom 10 were South African, according to the government.
HRW accuses law enforcement officials of being complicit, often operating in “discriminatory” and “abusive ways” towards non-nationals.
It claims foreign-owned businesses are disproportionately targeted by crackdowns on counterfeit goods, and that migrants are arbitrarily detained for allegedly lacking the right documents.
According to the group, police are reluctant to protect immigrants and investigate crimes against foreigners.
The report calls for “more urgent, concrete measures” to protect foreign nationals, claiming the government plan has been “just words on paper” so far.
Author Kristi Ueda condemned the culture of “impunity” that “only emboldens others” and perpetuates violence against non-nationals.
“Non-South African nationals have suffered wave after wave of xenophobic violence and live in constant fear of being targeted,” said Ueda.
“Government should hold those responsible accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
The home affairs department did not respond to requests for comment.
South Africa plays hosts to more than 2.2 million foreigners, ranging from political refugees and economic migrants to skilled expatriate workers, according to the last population census in 2011.