The media plays a massive role in how we understand and relate to any issue. Separating fact from fiction is crucial as we consider a topic that the Bible addresses in such a compelling way.

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Judge fairly and show mercy and kindness to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. And do not scheme against each other.” – Zechariah 7:9-10

After reading an in-depth guide by the Scalabrini Centre on how journalists should approach the topic of Foreign Nationals in a South African context, it became clear that a lot of that measured approach can be applied to how we, as Christ-followers, should be engaging with the stories we read and just as importantly, the Foreign Nationals that we meet. Leviticus 19:34 goes one step further than the book of Zechariah and tells us that, “…the foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.“ Love them as yourself. As yourself. Take a moment. Sit with that.

In an article in the Daily Maverick Greg Nicolson & Bheki Simelane wrote that “…the issue [of migration] is ripe for populist campaigns and there’s concern it might fuel the cycle of xenophobic attacks”. In order to be a part of preventing these kinds of attacks, it’s vital that we are ready to interrogate the facts that we are reading or hearing and look out for some common missteps therein. This is especially important now as we are in an election year and this issue often flares up around elections.

The way in which migration is reported can have damaging, and even fatal, impacts. Media pieces on migration tend to focus on negative imaging and consequences of cross-border migration, without taking into account the wealth and diversity that comes along with it.

One of the main missteps that we should be on the lookout for is Victim Journalism. Migrants typically appear in the media because they are victims of violence, or because they are heroes.

Neither is useful for changing perceptions towards migrants. This polarised approach creates a simplified perception of migration in our minds… Migrants are often linked to chaos and anarchy. They are also linked to disease, counterfeit goods, and adulterated food. This impression is furthered by the imagery of smoke, flames, displacement, and words like ‘floods’, ‘overrun’, and ‘swarms’. Those without documents are referred to as ‘illegal immigrants’, further linking migration and crime. These linkages are not a truthful reflection of the majority of foreign nationals. Have a look at some of these myths and their corresponding facts at the end of this article.

Xenophobia is usually put down to stress in the face of high unemployment. This simplifies a very complex problem and research on xenophobia has shown surprising results. For example, a poll by the Southern African Migration Programme found that, in terms of income, the lowest income groups were the least xenophobic.” This means that South Africans who are unemployed or earning the least, report that they do not harbour animosity towards their foreign national counterparts. This challenges the narrative that xenophobic attacks are grounded in frustration at ‘losing’ jobs to foreign nationals who have joined the workforce. In terms of racial groups, black South Africans were found to be the least xenophobic (even though this racial group is often ‘blamed’ for xenophobia in the media). The research found that the more interaction someone has with a non-national, the less xenophobic they are likely to be.

This is an important finding when you consider it alongside the verse, Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2). Research insists that when we interact with or really know a person, or see a person rather than a homogenous group beneath the unanimous banner ‘foreigner’ we are less likely to harbour discriminatory feelings towards them. The Bible pushes us even further, saying we should mindfully show hospitality- as in this article What does the Bible have to say about the foreigner?  points out:

It’s when we scratch beneath the surface of the content we are consuming on this topic, that we can start to see how our opinions might be shaped by a really nasty undercurrent. “Migration is usually in the news in reaction to a xenophobic comment or an outbreak of violence. Its coverage is therefore very reactionary, rather than proactive. This further associates immigration with violence and disorder in the public’s mind. So it’s on us to be more discerning when we engage. A helpful tool from the Scalabrini Centre is this one:

And finally, spend some time familiarising yourself with the Myths and Realties in the table below. Because when we’re able to apply wisdom to this topic, we will be better equipped to welcome the foreigner and honour their unique story.

Editors Note: This article leans heavily on Reporting On Migration In South Africa: A Guide for Journalists and Editors, a resource produced by the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town. The full guide is available here.
South Africa is over-populated with cross-border migrants. Cross-border migrants represent 3-7% of the population overall. This is in line with a global norm.
Migration is negative and a threat to national security. Migration is a key driver of development.
Migrants are all non-nationals (“foreigners”). Migrants can be both internal (within-country) and crossborder (across country borders).
Migrants bring HIV and other illnesses to South Africa. On arrival, migrants tend to be healthier than the host population
Provision of (free) healthcare will result in more migrants coming to South Africa. Migrants report that they will return home if too sick to work. What’s more, the Scalabrini Centre points out that with migrants making up such a small percentage of the population it is simply statically impossible for them to drain the healthcare system to the point that some sources report. For more on this topic, we recommend this helpful information
Migrants are ‘overburdening’ the healthcare system. At national level, migrants have very little impact on the healthcare system. At between 3 and 7% of the population, it is statistically impossible that migrants are to blame for the healthcare system’s failings. For more on this topic, we recommend this helpful information
Migrants steal South Africans’ jobs.
  1. Only 4% of the working population are cross-border Migrants.
  2. Cross-border migrants are more likely to find themselves in unstable and precarious employment, without access to benefits and formal work contracts.
  3. Research has found that in some cases, cross-border migrants are more likely to take jobs that locals are unwilling to take.
  4. Cross-border migrants running their own businesses also rent properties from and employ South Africans.
  5. Contrary to what some may think, cross-border migrant workers have had a positive impact on local employment and wages in South Africa, according to a World Bank study. One cross-border migrant worker generated approximately two jobs for local residents in South Africa between 1996 and 2011
Migrants dominate the informal sector. Less than 20% of people own businesses in the informal sector (in Johannesburg) are cross-border migrants.
There is an increase in crime because of migrants. There is no evidence that cross-border migrants are more likely to commit crimes than South African nationals. While SAPS does not release data regarding nationality, only 7.5% of people in South African prisons are non-nationals, which corresponds with the percentage of foreign-born nationals in the South African population.
South Africa is experiencing a migration crisis. In 2009, 157,204 asylum applications were lodged. This then fell steadily from 2009 – 2011, rising slightly between 2013-2015. Since 2016, the number of asylum applications has been falling steadily and dramatically, hitting 18,104in 2018.
Detention is the only way to manage migration.
    1. Fifteen Southern African States have committed to “develop and implement alternative options to detention,” as well as implement Migration Dialogue for Southern Africa (MIDSA)’s Regional and National Action Plans to oversee progress.
    2. Zambia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe are focus countries of UNHCR’s Global “Beyond Detention” Strategy.

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