Identifying Contemporary Challenges and Opportunities for Migrant, Refugee and Asylum Seeker Non-Governmental Organisations

Sarah Pugh
Sarah Pugh

As part of my PhD research, I’ve conducted interviews with a range of Cape Town-based migration-related civil society activists. I have heard about a host of challenges, but also some key opportunities in terms of how work might be strengthened in this particularly complex field of work.

People spoke about internal individual organisational challenges, including high staff turnover, resource and funding constraints, being overly busy with too little time for reflection and relationship-building, and having to always be reactive to crises and immediate needs. Some spoke about a lack of strategy and strategic planning in their organisations, particularly due to high levels of immediate demands, rapidly changing priorities, and insecure funding sources which impeded organisations’ ability to plan.

Important external challenges were also identified. We discussed the difficulties of navigating the unstable and fragmented national migration policy environment, the lack of policy implementation (the gap between policy and practice), and the lack of communication and information from government about changes in regulations and policy directions. Many felt relationships with government were deteriorating. They pointed to the difficulties of advocating for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as a socially and politically marginalised group in South Africa, and noted an ongoing lack of knowledge and capacity within government in terms of proper administrative procedures and regulations. They also identified corruption, violence, and other abuses of rights within the state as key challenges to their own work.

People also spoke about collective challenges facing this sector of civil society, many of which echoed individual organisational constraints. Importantly, they noted a lack of strategy and strategic planning between organisations, and tensions between organisations that work closely with government versus those who take a more adversarial stance. People raised issues of funding competition, ego and personality clashes, a lack of coordination and a general mistrust of collaborative forums.

There were, however, many opportunities identified as well. It was suggested that a stronger emphasis should be placed on relationship-building between organisations, along with enhanced communication about specific work and projects. Some suggested that work could be done to help repair relationships damaged during responses to the May 2008 violence. Space could be made for collegial debate around key concepts and approaches to work, and opportunities for better engagement with policy-makers could be explored. People spoke about the need to recognise that each organisation has a niche in a spectrum of engagement and strategies, with individual roles and strengths. Collaborations, some suggested, could be loose, based on areas where interests and mandates overlap, with accountability structures built in, along with a recognition that a collaborative body cannot speak for all organisations on all issues at all times. The need for a clear, well-communicated plan of action in the event of renewed violence against foreign nationals was raised, as was the need for more opportunities for foreign nationals to become involved in advocating for their own needs.

It is clear that there are many obstacles, but also much potential, as civil society continues to engage with these critical issues.

-Sarah Pugh, Former Scalabrini Intern

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