Posted by: divyaroy77 | May 2, 2012

Final Report: Lawyers for Human Rights

Lawyers for Human Rights: Durban, South Africa 

Report by Divya Roy

I possessed only a general knowledge of the Australian refugee system when I discovered that I would be placed with Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) in Durban, South Africa.  After my five-week placement I have a deeper understanding of the South African refugee system than I could have ever expected to gain. LHR is an implementing organisation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and therefore receives UNHCR funding and support.

The Durban LHR office provides advice to asylum seekers and refugees seeking assistance with navigating through the complex South African refugee system. The office consisted of two practicing South African solicitors, two intern lawyers from Canada and an administrative assistant. Though both Sandra Murray (my fellow Castan Centre intern) and I were comparatively short-term interns, we were provided with a variety of work by the staff.

Initially we assisted with client intake, which, similar to the structure of Community Legal Centres in Australia, consisted of obtaining basic contact information and an overview of the client’s legal issue. These matters were then provided to the senior solicitor who would allocate them to the remaining staff. Over time we were able to assist with simple legal enquiries, such as drafting affidavits for asylum seekers to attest to the fact that they lacked primary identification documents from their originating country.

We were often asked to sit in with lawyers when they were interviewing clients and providing advice. If the client’s refugee claim appeared particularly strong but the client did not appear to have the capacity to adequately present his or her case, then the lawyer would agree to provide ongoing representation. This often included representing the client at the Refugee Appeal Board. The lawyer would conduct a full interview obtaining details as to why the client left his or her originating country. The majority of these clients had either experienced or witnessed horrific acts of violence, and many of the women had been subjected to sexual abuse. Although the interviews were sometimes difficult to deal with, they broadened my understanding of why such individuals risk their lives in fleeing their homelands. I was also able to see firsthand how senior lawyers deal with such sensitive matters, whilst remaining both sympathetic and objective.

LHR was also involved with numerous strategic litigation cases, where the solicitors would attempt to deal with systemic problems in the refugee system. The administrative body that is responsible for the South African refugee process is the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and much of LHR’s litigation was aimed at changing DHA’s policies to create a clearer and more efficient system. I was invited to participate in the office’s staff meetings, which provided a more in depth understanding of these cases and the manner in which they are run.

My five weeks at LHR also included monitoring work at the DHA reception office in Durban, research into the treatment of sexual minorities in other African countries, and the preparation of grounds of appeal to the Refugee Appeal Board on behalf of clients. The lawyers at LHR were always eager to support me or provide me with varied work, and I found working in a South African legal environment to be more relaxed as compared to my experience in Australian firms. Furthermore, as LHR was based near the Refugee Social Services (another UNHCR implementing organisation) I was also exposed to the wide variety of social problems that refugees face, including their struggle to obtain a simple bank account.

I was interning with LHR as an Oxfam Australia intern and found the support and training that Oxfam Australia provided to be above and beyond what I expected. Oxfam conducted regular debriefs with its interns, and provided an initial week of orientation in South Africa which included a brief overview of the history of the country, the social welfare system and the impact of HIV/AIDS. One of the many highlights of this internship was Oxfam’s mid-placement debrief where we stayed in a rural village in Ndumo, Kwazulu Natal, living in traditional rondavels, without electricity and limited access to running water.

Reflecting upon my internship has allowed me to better appreciate the myriad of experiences I had during my brief six weeks in South Africa. Though it was my second visit to the country, this placement has solidified my desire to return to South Africa in the future to work for a longer period of time. My interest in human rights law has only been amplified by the internship – notably it has led me to learn more about the Australian refugee and asylum seeker process. I am now planning on undertaking more human rights law electives (including refugee and migrant law), and thinking about different pathways through which I might be able to assist those seeking asylum in Australia.

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