Refugees/asylum-seekers are socially constructed as being economically, politically and culturally threatening to the nation-state in which they seek asylum. Evidence of this social construction can be found in media, statements by public officials and in opinion polls. By synthesizing the results of research we can identify the commonalities amongst discourses from different nation-states. This allows us to see how refugees/asylum- eekers serve nation building in general. A case study of South Africa is used to show how this discourse relates to the South African nation-building exercise, with particular references to the xenophobic violence of May 2008. What emerges from the case study is that despite evidence that this framework is a good fit for thinking critically about instances of xenophobia in South Africa, there is also evidence of a counter discourse about refugees/asylum-seekers that casts them as deserving of compassion and generosity.