Access to socio-economic rights for non-nationals in SADC

While many countries in Africa are contemplating ways in which to extend access to social protection for their citizens, the enjoyment of socio-economic rights by non-nationals receives scarce commentary. Despite the existence of international, continental and regional instruments and treaties that guarantee both access to socio-economic rights for all and equality within states of nationals and non-nationals, for many these rights remain paper rights.

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

May 6th, 2012

While many countries in Africa are contemplating ways in which to extend access to social protection for their citizens, the enjoyment of socio-economic rights by non-nationals receives scarce commentary. Despite the existence of international, continental and regional instruments and treaties that guarantee both access to socio-economic rights for all and equality within states of nationals and non-nationals, for many these rights remain paper rights.

This report was commissioned by the Open Society Institute of Southern Africa (OSISA) to inform their advocacy strategy for the next five years in the SADC region in respect of the rights of non-nationals, as well as the cross-cutting issues of access to socio-economic rights (including health rights) that address the requirements of people affected or infected by HIV or AIDS. It was agreed at the beginning of the enquiry that an investigation of this nature should be accompanied by an enquiry into the levels of access of nationals themselves to socio-economic rights in each country, in addition to questions of access by non-nationals.

This report seeks to reflect – through a combination of primary and secondary research – the extent to which both nationals and non-nationals in SADC countries enjoy these rights. The report was compiled through a partnership with researchers based in ten SADC countries, and the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII), a not-for-profit research institute based in Johannesburg.

The use of the term ‘non-national’ is fairly broad and includes a number of overlapping, diverse groups of people with distinct vulnerabilities and requirements. These groups include refugees, asylum-seekers, economic migrants and undocumented migrants. The highly vulnerable nature of many people within these categories directly impacts on the availability of verifiable data, as many people are reluctant to emerge from the shadows into the spotlight of formal research enquiries. As a result, it was agreed up front that this enquiry would be limited to the conditions of refugees and asylum-seekers, given the greater and more verifiable nature of data on their access to socio-economic rights compared to other groupings.

The report focussed on the rights to health care, education and social security as indicative of broader enjoyment of social protection within the region.

There is a growing field of publications in respect of access to socio-economic rights and social protection in the region (and the African continent). The value of this report is the use of primary research to verify de facto access by ordinary people, over and beyond the ratified treaties, national constitutional guarantees and nationally legislated rights.

The main findings of this work suggest that access by refugees and asylum-seekers to social protection in the southern African region is pretty parlous. Access by citizens also needs to be improved. Although there are guaranteed rights of access and formal institutions of delivery for enjoyment of the rights in many of the participating countries, the quality of services provided often undermines the value of that guarantee. This is especially true in respect of the right to health care and education. Many of the respondents advised that the low standard of quality of the provision of these services led to many already vulnerable people using their limited income to purchase private services, thus reducing their ability to provide for their other needs and requirements. Access to social security was in general limited to formal contributory social insurance pensions for formal sector workers and civil servants.

Issues around the encampment of refugees and asylum-seekers emerged from the research. Conditions in existing camps differ widely, and are intimately affected by the prevailing policies and attitudes of national governments to non-nationals and their relationships with neighbouring countries. An issue of concern was the question of income strategies for non-nationals in countries that follow a policy of self-settlement rather than encampment, given that in most countries even accredited refugees and asylum-seekers find it hard to obtain work for a variety of reasons (including the high levels of unemployment in their host countries, an inability to gain accreditation for their qualifications from their countries of origin and a prevailing prejudice experienced by many as a result of being seen as ‘foreign’).

In such instances, the reflections were that it was better for people to be in camps as their basic needs had a better chance of being met. However, restrictions on the movement of people within camps were highlighted as being a challenge for those respondents who were camp-based. The other main issue that emerged was the role of intermediary bodies, including the UNHCR, in the management of refugees and asylum-seekers and the report concludes with some recommendations in this regard.

The latter sections of this report contain a list of advocacy recommendations that emerged through the primary research, which included both structured interviews and administered questionnaires and focus groups. It is hoped that these recommendations will be used to build a comprehensive rights-based framework for work by civil society organisations and other partners in the region.

The recommendations are broadly grouped under two distinct advocacy tracks:

  • Firstly, access to socio-economic rights in the region by all people, citizens and non-nationals, needs to be expanded and improved; and,
  • Secondly, access of refugees (in particular) to socio-economic rights needs to be improved.

The key recommendations emerging from this research project include:

  • Creating oversight and accountability mechanisms that track progress on socio-economic rights for nationals and non-nationals over time;
  • Monitoring gender parity in access to socio-economic rights for both nationals and non-nationals;
  • Lobbying national and regional parliaments to adopt human rights treaties and strengthen their oversight role of treaties and conventions;
  • Clarifying refugee rights and entitlements in the individual countries, while improving access to refugee camps and lobbying governments to scrap the encampment policy and grant refugees access to the labour market; 
  • Campaigning for the provision of citizenship for those who have been in camps for more than ten years;
  • Considering the role of the media in promoting positive messages around cross-border migration; and,
  • Addressing corruption, which remains a problem.

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