Could religion be an effective tool for social cohesion among migrants?

By Paul Kariuki / Tawanda Matema

As the world celebrates the second holiday season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, reflection over the past two years shows the virus has had a lasting impact on livelihoods around the world.

As the health pandemic has affected lives at all levels, vulnerable communities such as the unemployed and the self-employed, low-skilled and low-income households, as well as migrants on the periphery of the economy, have been hardest hit.

With Christmas close at hand, many are eagerly awaiting the festivities despite the looming wave of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. The holiday season, with its religious symbols, is known to bring together people, families and friends from all walks of life, regardless of their religion and socio-economic status. Yet one question remains: is religion an effective mechanism to promote social cohesion, especially during this pandemic?


With regard to migrants in particular, life has not been the same since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. After going through variants of the pandemic, severe national blockages that have paralyzed many economies and affected livelihoods, tensions between African migrants and their hosts that have triggered the outbreak of xenophobic violence, the divisions in society are become more apparent.

Xenophobia is a vital indicator of the lack of social cohesion, a condition that disadvantages migrants in South Africa. Xenophobia illustrates how fractured South African society is, yet the role of religion in exploiting a socially cohesive country is often overlooked.

The primary function of religion is to unite and preserve society – integration is therefore a key part of religion. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and traditional African religions (which differ from the 11 existing cultures in the country) are some of the religions practiced in South Africa.

Adherence to mutual moral codes, observing various rituals like wedding ceremonies, funeral processions, praise and worship to name a few foster a community with a solidified shared identity, in d in other words a cohesive community.

Migrants have used religion as a coping mechanism. Migration is often a traumatic experience as some people have fled wars in search of better living conditions in host countries without documents or even relatives and friends to turn to. These migrants most often come together through religious beliefs to overcome this trauma.

Migrants are more receptive to religion in host countries than in their countries of origin to deal with the challenges of migration and the alienation of residing in foreign countries. This rapprochement of migrants and the constitution of a community represent social cohesion at the local level. Using religion as an entry point, migrants also integrate with local communities who share similar beliefs and practices.

Because most migrants have to fend for themselves, the role of religion is not limited to providing spiritual services, but also social services – providing recreation and performing civic duties – for example, Cape Methodist Church providing shelter to refugees. National lockdowns have also seen many members of different faiths delivering food packages to those who could not support themselves, including migrants. Religious groups have therefore extended quasi-social safety nets to migrants.

However, religion has its own limits. Social cohesion has never been so important in the face of the pandemic.

One of the key issues in the fight against the pandemic has been reluctance to vaccinate. Scientific innovation has always been at odds with religion because the latter believes that the former intends to take the place of “god”, therefore inoculation has in some cases been avoided.

The reluctance to vaccinate is attributed to certain religious beliefs, for example the South African government asserts that an important myth is that “vaccines have the mark of the Beast – 666”, a religious belief at the end of the times. world. But the point is, there is no religious conspiracy behind the vaccination campaign. This has created social cohesion within group identities sharing the same beliefs, but not between the groups that make up society as a whole.

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The initial vaccination campaign saw the division of society based on religious beliefs. While some religious groups have refused the vaccine, others have approved it. Certain religious statements that “God will protect his people from the pandemic” have discouraged many people from getting vaccinated, dividing people.

Language has been a significant challenge to the effectiveness of religion as a mechanism of social cohesion among migrants. The languages ​​of the many different migrants in South Africa differ greatly, making communication very difficult to achieve. In addition, South Africa has more than 11 languages ​​used in daily conversation, which makes integration into the country very difficult due to this language barrier.

Religion by nature is designed to foster a socially cohesive society characterized by members guided by moral principles that promote the common good of society as a whole.

However, the way different religious groups interpret beliefs can result in strongly related religious groups that are isolated from each other.

Nevertheless, the faith community is a central pillar in the promotion of social cohesion. Despite the diversity of congregations and religious deities, faith communities such as Jesuit Refugee Services, Christians for Peace in Africa, Methodist Church, Catholic Church and Islamic community, among others, there is a adherence to common principles of morality, respect for dignity and human rights and encourage cooperation in society.

Migrants are accepted into faith communities. These communities also present migrants to the rest of society as human beings without stereotypes. The faith community, regardless of religious differences, must speak with one voice to strengthen the cohesion of people and bring society together.

Religion continues to be a unifying social force in South Africa, which transcends race, ethnicity, gender, nationality and socio-economic status. Given the multiple roles that religion plays in ensuring the political and socio-economic stability of society, the religious community from all walks of life must be at the forefront of promoting the peaceful coexistence of migrants and their hosts. local.

  • Dr Paul Kariuki is the Executive Director of the Democracy Development Program. Tawanda Matema is the project manager assigned to the migration project at Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Johannesburg. They both write in their personal capacity.

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