Posted by: carab87 | February 1, 2011

Lawyers for Human Rights

By Cara Bredebusch

After a couple of weeks into my internship, I’ve learnt more about South African refugee law than I thought was possible. The Durban branch of Lawyer’s for Human Rights focuses on the Refugee and Migrant Rights Project and all of our clients are asylum seekers or refugees. There are a few common legal problems that the majority of our clients have, namely that their applications for refugee status have been rejected and they want to appeal the decision or that they have no interim papers after applying for a work permit and forfeiting their asylum seeker papers under a new and problematic law.

South Africa has one of the most generous refugee systems in the world. When people first present themselves to the Department of Home Affairs, they are immediately granted temporary asylum seeker status even without presenting identification documents. They are then given papers that allow them to study and work. Although this may appear to be a generous system, the issue arises that many economic migrants come to South Africa and claim to be asylum seekers so that they can work. The system ends up being inundated with applicants, and the process from asylum seeker to refugee can take up to six years. This lengthy process encourages people to claim asylum seeker status, as they know that they will be able to work or study in South Africa for many years before their claim for refugee status has been rejected and they are told to go home.

Working with refugees has made me consider many issues that I gave little thought to before. One of the concepts I tend to struggle with is whether state sovereignty is just another form of racism, as it justifies keeping people out of a country due to their nationality. Another problem we often have in the office is telling clients that they have been denied refugee status because the government considers it safe for them to return to their home country. This happens for the vast majority of clients, and we are often forced to tell clients that they must return to Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo because it is deemed to be ‘safe’ for them to return. It is incredibly difficult telling someone that despite the fact that they have allegedly seen their family been killed, they do not qualify as a refugee.

There are various support services available to refugees, and another issue I often think about is whether refugees should be given government support when the South African government is not able to support many of its own nationals. There is an official unemployment rate of approximately 25% in South Africa, with a far higher unofficial unemployment rate. The influx of economic refugees due to the problematic refugee process puts great strain on a country that already has difficulty functioning.

Although I have come up with no solution to these issues, nor any firm opinion yet on the best way forward, I find it thought provoking and educative being faced with these issues on a daily basis. I have learnt that one of the most important things when working at an NGO such as Lawyers for Human Rights is to maintain a sense of humour, and to remain realistic, or else it would be too easy to burn out or to become disheartened with the legal system and the realities of the world.

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