MSF field worker draws parallels between xenophobic attitudes in SA and Europe

Kate Stegeman is a South African field worker for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a non-governmental organisation that delivers emergency aid to those in need. She is the first South African join MSF’s search and rescue operations for refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean. She spoke to The Daily Vox about her experiences.

What have been your experiences working in the Mediterranean Sea?

This was a very different mission compared to what I usually do with MSF. Normally my job is to do communications and it’s mostly office-based. This mission means you’re living on the boat 24/7 and you’re a member of the crew. When you leave port we have to make sure the boat is fully stocked with everything we need for the people we’re rescuing as well as for the crew. It usually takes a few days to get to the coastal waters where we patrol, about twenty nautical miles off the coast of Libya, looking for boats that are in distress.

08 June. Three boats containing approximately 150 people each were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the Bourbon Argos and taken to Sicily, Italy.

Our partner, SOS Mediterranee, would go out on rubber boats and bring people back to our boat. Once they’re on the boat, my job is to help take off life jackets and give people a bag with clothes, towels, blankets, some food, and water. Otherwise I’d be part of the registration team, standing with an iPad and getting details from people, for our own data. We would never hand those details over to the authorities. We basically record where they are from and how old they are, especially if they are unaccompanied minors because we have to tell other NGOs so they can protect them.

If there was an emergency and we had something called a tragic rescue and there are potential drownings, we’d have something called the mass casualty plan and we’d turn one area into a makeshift clinic. If there are people who are covered in fuel, there’s a risk they can get chemical burns because when petrol from the boat mixes with the saltwater, it becomes corrosive and it burns them. People strip off their clothing, and you have to hose them down and get them in showers as soon as possible. Another time we had a tragic rescue when two unconscious women were brought on board and they died of hypothermia. I helped to make sure the medical team had all their equipment to resuscitate the women but very sadly they didn’t make it.

A woman is being helped from a wooden boat carrying around 350 people to an MSF rig that will bring her on board Dignity.

You’ve worked on xenophobia in South Africa. Based on your experiences with MSF, do you think government policies affect anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments in Europe and South Africa?

Firstly, generally in South Africa and in Europe, you have populations that are very xenophobic. We’re seeing around the world, when people are under economic pressure, they feel like the unemployment level is very high or when resources are pushed to the max, they want to blame a scapegoat. Instead of looking at government and government policies, they look at refugees and migrants and blame them. You can see the parallel there, especially with South Africa two years ago, when those xenophobic attacks happened.

In general, we have quite a xenophobic nation and we’re seeing the same in Europe. On paper at least, South Africa is a lot more progressive than most European nations – we have a legal framework that allows refugees to work, get an education and assimilate and live anywhere in the country. And that’s a thing we should be proud of. The problem is when it comes to reality when the policy comes to practice.

When we had Operation Fiela two years ago, we were seeing South African police go into safe havens and basically not follow the law in terms of the raids. Refugees were treated like criminals. We are also seeing similarities in Europe. In 2015-2016, in Greece, refugee centres were basically being turned into detention centres. So people who were crossing into Europe for a safe haven were being treated like criminals. This is very worrying.

Bourbon Argos and Aquarius crew and MSF staff rescue 700 people aboard an overcrowded wooden boat in the Central Mediterranean Sea.

What we need in South Africa and around the world is to see that migrants are actually of benefit to a country, they are not a burden. They help contribute to the economy and they send money home, which means they helping their home economy as well. But unfortunately, we see xenophobia being upheld by governments and citizens.

In addition to reporting on xenophobic violence, I did my thesis on the causes of xenophobic violence, and the question of where the xenophobic sentiment comes from is very difficult to understand. In South Africa, we’ve had oppression and human rights abuses, one group oppressing another. Some people think that xenophobia is a learned behaviour from apartheid. Where does the feeling come from? Does it come from a small group of marginalised people living in the townships mostly who are xenophobic or does it come from government? I would say it’s both. From Operation Fiela under Malusi Gigaba to the Zulu King’s xenophobic comments and more recently comments from the DA’s Joburg mayor. Those views seem to be very high up in government and until you have a change in attitude, until you have more political will, we can’t get away from the fact that those are largely political views.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Featured image via Twitter, additional images courtesy of MSF.