Posted by: sandralouisemurray | May 11, 2012

Final Report: Lawyers for Human Rights

Lawyers for Human Rights: Durban, South Africa

Report by Sandra Murray

In January 2012 I travelled to Durban, South Africa to undertake a six-week internship with Oxfam Australia, along with fellow intern Divya Roy. We were placed at Oxfam’s partner organisation Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) within its Refugee and Migrant Rights Program; a specialist program that advocates, strengthens and enforces the rights of asylum seekers, refugees and other marginalised categories of migrants in South Africa. LHR assists with applications for asylum seeker permits, refugee status, permanent residency and citizenship. LHR also assists with the preparation of appeals and conducts strategic litigation in an attempt to resolve systemic issues facing refugees.

South Africa has an ostensibly generous refugee system, but it also has many issues. It was the largest single recipient country of asylum seekers from 2007-2010. A refugee is defined in South African legislation as a person fleeing either persecution or conflict in their country of origin. Everyone is entitled to apply for asylum in South Africa and live, study and work in the community whilst they are awaiting a decision on their refugee status. There are avenues for appeal to administrative bodies and for judicial review of rejected claims.

However, it can take many years for a decision to be reached on an application for refugee status, and many more years to go through the appeal process. As such, the system is under considerable strain, causing much frustration for asylum seekers and refugees whose lives are effectively in ‘limbo’ whilst they await final decisions. Furthermore, there is a large gap between the rights of asylum seekers and refugees to work, study and access state services and the practical reality of the challenges many face living in South Africa. Many experience a range of social issues, including poverty, unemployment and homelessness.

During our internship we undertook a variety of interesting work. From 8.30am until 12.45pm Monday to Thursday, LHR runs a drop-in legal clinic for asylum seekers and refugees seeking advice. During that time, we assisted with client intake. Our role was to screen the clients by obtaining their personal details and an overview of their legal issue. Other work we were involved in included interviewing clients, drafting letters and grounds of appeal, research, assisting attorneys with casework and giving advice on basic legal issues.

One common issue was that many clients lacked the identification documents required to apply for asylum seeker permits. We assisted by writing affidavits for them to take to the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) to support their application. This simple document often meant the difference between a person being an illegal alien in South Africa in fear of deportation, to being a documented asylum seeker with the right to work and study whilst applying for refugee status. We also undertook monitoring at the local DHA office, interviewing asylum seekers and refugees as they exited the office about any issues they may have experienced in accessing assistance.

Another common issue was that many clients feared going to DHA to renew their asylum seeker permit while they were waiting the outcome of their final appeal to the Refugee Appeals Board. This was because Immigration officials at DHA would immediately arrest those asylum seekers whose appeal had been rejected. Once arrested the client could be detained for months before being deported to their country of origin. There is no obligation to release the client back into the community before their deportation to settle their affairs which presented a number of issues for clients who have families, jobs, bank accounts, leases and study commitments. We liaised between detention centres, Immigration officials and the International Office of Migration in an attempt to obtain the release of clients and secure their voluntary repatriation to their country of origin. Fortunately, some asylum seekers would obtain advice from LHR prior to collecting their appeal decision, which gave us the opportunity to prepare them should they be arrested. We explained the processes concerning detention and deportation and encouraged clients to bring evidence of their ties to South Africa to DHA in order to strengthen their case for being released into the community before their deportation.

The program enabled me to develop my knowledge of the operation of human rights law generally, and refugee law specifically. I learnt a lot about refugee law in South Africa and the challenges refugees face there. I also had the opportunity to develop my professional legal skills, including research, writing and interviewing.

The program has confirmed my goal to pursue a social justice orientated career. It has also confirmed my interest in human rights and administrative law, and stimulated a new interest in refugee law. I am looking forward to studying the refugee law elective unit, as well as undertaking volunteer work or an internship in this area to further my understanding of refugee law in Australia.

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