Four lessons Durban learned in 2020

How one municipality is advancing its pledge to improve access and opportunities for refugees.
Local Integration

Four lessons Durban learned in 2020

How one municipality is advancing its pledge to improve access and opportunities for refugees.
15 December 2020

Somali refugees gives back to host community during COVID-19.

At the first Global Refugee Forum, the eThekwini Municipality (Durban) pledged to: ensure that staff working in public municipal services are trained in working with diverse populations; facilitate the integration of refugees and asylum-seekers in the communities they live in; set up “one-stop shops” for the provision of information in order to ease access to health education and welfare services for all; and create opportunities for youth of all backgrounds to work together.

Almost one year after the Forum, a conversation to discuss progress on the pledge was held between United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa), UNHCR, a refugee representative and the Head of International and Governance Relations for the eThekwini Municipality.

Here are the four main lessons shared during the conversation.


  1. “We need to be more proactive in eradicating the triggers for conflict.”  

Most refugees in South Africa are of African origin, and when asked why eThekwini Municipality was at the forefront of pledging in the country, Eric Apelgren, the Head of International and Governance Relations for the municipality, insisted on the necessity of having a unified continent to respond to the causes and effects of displacement. As a municipality, Durban aims to lead by example although Mr. Apelgren agreed that more needs to be done to include refugee communities in the social security net.

“The pledge underlines the spirit of Ubuntu” said Leonard Zulu, the Representative for UNHCR in South Africa, highlighting how the community came together and shared the limited resources they had during the lockdown. “Ubuntu” means “I am, because we are”.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows: “A traveller through a country would stop at a village, and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?"

In order to replicate this in other countries, Durban is in the process of developing a training manual to share with other cities to help build the capacity of city leaders.


  1. “The second challenge is the integration within the local communities.”

Daniel Byamungu Dunia, a refugee and Executive Director of the Africa Solidarity Network, pointed out two main challenges refugees face upon arriving in South Africa: obtaining documentation and integrating in the local community. Although the national policy has its advantages, such as providing healthcare, education and financial assistance, he believes the city can help improve the integration process in the local community.

Dunia emphasised that refugees need to be taught about the local culture and be introduced to local leadership. Developing a policy for refugees and asylum seekers is key to helping refugees contribute to the city and participate in local planning.

Related article: How the city of Sao Paulo is placing refugee perspectives at the heart of its policy


  1. “The Global Compact on Refugees recognizes the important role of local authorities as frontline actors.”

Leonard Zulu noted that the humanitarian sector is seeing the most important shift from rural to urban, with 61 per cent of refugees living in urban areas worldwide.  In South Africa, all reports of COVID-19 cases in the refugee and asylum-seeker community came from urban areas.

In the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees, it is important to provide durable services that will serve the refugee community as well as the host community. The pledge made by Durban shows the commitment of the municipality to continue including refugees and migrants in the city. When asylum seekers arrive in South Africa, they receive a permit that gives them access to national public services and employment. However, misinformation and discrimination can pose obstacles to benefiting from these rights and opportunities. The message of inclusion from this pledge will combat some of the challenges faced by these communities.


  1. “We try to shape a new narrative that stops seeing migration as a challenge, because it is not.”

From her experience as a Project Officer at United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Fatima Fernandez believes cities are using their networks to develop a stronger voice, work proactively, and change the narrative on refugees and migrants.

The core message of this conversation was the importance of knowledge-sharing. All panellists agreed that there is a need for more advocacy, capacity building and the development of policies. Platforms for dialogue with community leaders should be put in place, and there needs to be proactive engagement where different communities meet. Daniel Byamungu Dunia shared that the National Department of Art and Culture, with Social Cohesion Advocates, has 5-year programmes to build social cohesion and nation-building in the country through dialogue.

Although there are still obstacles, namely funding and resources, conversations like these are starting with other big cities in South Africa such as Johannesburg and Cape Town, and across Southern Africa, in the hope that more cities will make a pledge to include refugees further in city planning.

See the whole conversation bellow.






One year on from the Global Refugee Forum