YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Security concerns are largely exaggerated in South Africa, leading to the exploitation of migrants, according to Catholic leaders in the country.

“Nations have the responsibility to safeguard their borders and to control the security situations in their countries, but this should not be the excuse to restrict migration,” said Father Peter-John Pearson, Director of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference Parliamentary Liaison Office.

“I do not personally buy the fact that it is a big security issue in South Africa, and there are ways of dealing with this if it should rear its head. We have sophisticated security processes and hardware and personnel who would surely be able to sort out this dimension without disturbing the beneficial flows of migration. So, I don’t personally feel that that carries the weight often given to it,” he told Crux.

The exploitation of migrants is a common issue across the globe, but it is particularly worrying in South Africa, where there has been a surge of xenophobic attacks on foreigners.

A 2017 study carried out by the Human Sciences Research Council on the public’s explanation for hate crimes directed at foreigners indicated that about 30 percent of the general public believe the violence was caused by “foreigners stealing jobs from hardworking South Africans.”

The study also revealed that another 30 percent of South Africans see migrants as posing a security threat.

Migrant workers in the country are often subjected to inhumane treatment and migrant workers are exploited.

Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg has spoken out against the exploitation of migrants, noting that such treatment meted out to people who are simply seeking to improve their situation is inconsistent with Biblical teaching.

Speaking Feb. 25 during the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), the archbishop said that many employers do not pay migrant workers a living wage.

“They exploit especially those migrants and refugees who do not have proper documents. Many receive slave wages and are continuously threatened with arrest. Some are victims of corrupt police officials.  And, as if that was not enough, many have been victims of xenophobia. When local communities go on a service delivery protest, they take out their anger on foreign nationals. They harass them, attack them, destroy and loot their shops. It is most unfair for migrants and refugees to be made scapegoats for the glaring shortcomings of the government and local authorities,” Tlhagale said.

The archbishop then made mention of the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospels.

“We are encouraged, not to see the migrant, the other unknown person as a threat, a rival, a competitor. No, we should see the other as a blessing in disguise; as an opportunity or as an instrument that brings the best out of us, making us worthy of being called: human beings with a heart,” he said.

Tlhagale condemned the indifference often directed against migrants, describing it as a “grave sin.”

“The grave sin we commit in our times, is the sin of indifference to the plight of others. We walk on the other side of the road like the Priest and the Levite. We don’t want to see, we don’t want to know. We carry around with us hearts of stone. We measure the worth of persons by applying the misguided criteria of race, nationality, culture and religion,” he said.

The archbishop said such discrimination against fellow Africans diminishes “our own honor and worth as human persons.”

“We obscure the image of God imprinted on our faces and in our hearts. The fact is, we are creatures that find our perfection only by establishing a relationship with others. It is this mutuality that makes us truly human. It is a mutual relationship that cuts across man-made boundaries, geographical frontiers, cultural fault-lines and racial divides. Person to person relationships of origin, language, race or culture, are generally warm and pleasant. Relationships are poisoned by a prejudice that is embedded in society,” he said.

The archbishop added that the ideological walls of race, nationality, ethnicity, culture and religion need to be dismantled, so that human beings can “embrace each other” and “do as God would want us to … this is the moral posture and attitude human beings should assume.”

According to a 2017 report from the African Center for Migration & Society (ACMS), approximately 4 percent of people of working age – defined as being between the ages of 15 and 64 – across South Africa were born outside the country.

Statistics show that 75 percent of migrant workers come from the continent of Africa, primarily from neigbhors Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and Namibia. However, there are also significant numbers of migrants from the United Kingdom and India.

Pearson told Crux that the mistreatment of migrants in South Africa has tainted South Africa’s image and betrayed the spirit of the country.

“The issue of xenophobia is a great blight on our country, especially as we see ourselves as being deeply committed to a spirit of Pan Africanism and what we call Ubuntu, that is, the togetherness of humankind,” the priest said.

He said most migrants suffer silently, too fearful to report the abuses to the police because “most are undocumented or illegal and do not want to be exposed for being here undocumented.”

Despite the abuses, South Africa has remained a major draw for many who seek a better life.

Pearson says two reasons account for the country’s desirability:

First, it continues to be seen as having “a tolerant constitution and legislation that is human rights-based, hence early legislation for displaced persons was very accommodating.”

“The sense of this, even if now restricted in formal and informal practice, is still that this is an easy place to start anew. It is captured in the phrase we often hear: ‘We came for Mandela.’ What is perceived as his legacy is still an overriding image especially on this continent.”

Secondly, the priest said there is “the stark fact that it is one of the two biggest economies in Africa and that lends itself to the perception that there are possibilities in South Africa , more than elsewhere.”

Yet, the legacy of injustice and racial underdevelopment and economic deprivation that apartheid caused, and the continuing poverty in much of the country, means that ordinary black South Africans see migrants more in terms of people coming to deprive them of scarce jobs.

Pearson said the Church needs to offer an alternative, more humane, narrative.

“The goods of the earth belong to all who live on the earth and in cases of need people should be allowed to go to where there are resources that can assist them to live a better life and provide for their families,” the priest said.

“We need to contest the popular political narrative with our Catholic Social Teaching narrative and seek to engage the political one with ours as a ‘corrective.’”