By Natasha Joseph
Migrant women living in South Africa without legal documentation are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and are frequently blocked from accessing vital services such as healthcare, according to research undertaken by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
The centre is doing a project about the "gendered nature of xenophobia", says one of the researchers, and its preliminary findings are grim.
Romi Sigsworth, the project manager of the centre's violence and transition project in its transitional justice programme, said undocumented migrant women faced "ongoing problems" in South Africa.
These include accessing necessary immigration documentation through the Department of Home Affairs because, research has found, "xenophobic attitudes" persist there and some officials ask women for sexual favours or money.
They are also vulnerable to exploitation – both sexual and in terms of labour, Sigsworth said, because South Africans knew "that (these) women will not report them".
She said migrant women lacked access to the criminal justice system.
"…they cannot report crimes (including rape) because they are afraid the police will just lock them up for being immigrants or demand bribes from them and still not investigate their crimes."
Western Cape police spokesperson Billy Jones said that "irrespective" of a person's legal status in the country, "he or she may lay a criminal charge with the SAPS and there is an obligation on the SAPS to investigate any crime or alleged crime".
But Freddy Nkosi, of the Sonke Gender Justice Network, concurred with the CSVR's findings.
He said some migrant women did not realise they had the right to report a crime to police.
Migrant women were not only at risk because they lacked proper documentation, said Nkosi, but "the lack thereof puts them at risk".
"They can't get a proper job, proper accommodation… people may take advantage of them," he said.
In a paper earlier this year, Sigsworth wrote that migrant women faced "a double jeopardy".
"Violence against migrants/ refugees and violence against women are two forms of violence that are viewed with horror by the general public… but are, in fact, normalised ways in which South African society interacts with minority and vulnerable groups," she said.
"The double jeopardy that faces refugee and migrant women is just that: they are at the intersection of these two groups that are so vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence."
Department of Home Affairs spokesperson Siobhan McCarthy said while she was aware of some cases of irregularities, she had not heard of officials demanding sexual favours from women.
She acknowledged that some undocumented women might not report officials' actions because they feared deportation. However, women could call the government's national hotline, toll-free on 0800 701 701.
This article was originally published on page 6 of Cape Times on December 01, 2008