Posted by: vanessalamborn | February 1, 2011

Week 3 – Lawyers for Human Rights

By Vanessa Lamborn

Hebo Umlungu!

Well I’ve been in South Africa for nearly three weeks and have undertaken the first two weeks of my placement at Lawyers for Human Rights in the Durban office. My placement is focused on the refugee and migrant rights project, which means that all my clients are refugees. I started my first day in reception doing client intakes which involved greeting new clients, talking to them about what their legal problems are and than typing up a brief report to be passed on to the lawyers. This in itself was a confronting experience. My first ‘client’ was a twelve year old girl who had travelled from the DRC through Zambia and Zimbabwe to arrive in South Africa by herself. She was reunited with a relative who had been in South Africa for a few years and had gained refugee status. Our clients seek refuge from many different countries, primarily the DRC, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, but we also have files from Iran, Kirghizia and China amongst other places. The bulk of the work that I undertake at Lawyers for Human Rights is helping clients who have had their refugee applications dismissed appeal that decision.

Refugee law in South Africa is quite different to Australia in that every person who crosses into South Africa to seek asylum will immediately be granted a temporary asylum seeker permit. This entitles the asylum seeker to work and study within the community. Their application for refugee status is than processed by the Department of Home Affairs and depending on whether or not they fit the criteria, they will be deported or granted a temporary refugee permit which is periodically reviewed.

One of the challenging aspects of the placement so far has been in realising the gap between what a law seems to say and what its actual effect is. According to South African legislation, to be classified as a refugee one must be outside their country of origin and have a well founded fear of persecution based on at least one of six characteristics; race, tribe, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership to a social group. Although this definition seems likely to cover most people escaping the desperate violence and poverty that exists in many African villages, less than 1% of our clients will successfully appeal their decision.

Most asylum seekers are unable to satisfy the heavy burden of proof to show they had a ‘well founded’ fear of persecution and that this persecution was based on one of the above mentioned attributes. Many asylum seekers, despite the horrible stories of witnessing mass rape and violence, ultimately come to South Africa for a better life and are thus labelled economic migrants who do not satisfy the requisite criteria to be classified as a refugee. Although many of our clients will ultimately be deported, the Department of Home Affairs is so overwhelmed by the number of asylum applications that the full process of applying for status, being rejected and appealing can take about eight years. This means that often the situation in the asylum seekers country of origin may have stabilised and many asylum seekers are able to complete schooling or university in South Africa before they return home.

So far work at Lawyers for Human Rights has allowed me to gain an insight into the lives of people from all over Africa and to accept the realities of a legal framework that cannot provide for all.


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