Reflection on my YLIP placement at Lawyers for Human Rights in Pretoria

Katherine Grzadkowska

Katherine Grzadkowska

I had just completed my final exams at Osgoode Hall Law School when I applied to the Canadian Bar Association's Young Lawyers International Program (YLIP). Over the course of my legal studies I became heavily drawn towards international public law – primarily human rights and humanitarian law – and choose every opportunity I possibly could, such as my course selection, school organizations, and studying and interning abroad, to advance my knowledge and career aspirations in this area. Nearing the end of legal studies, I began to realize how unfortunately limited and competitive paid international law positions are for recent graduates and I saw YLIP as a remarkable opportunity that would allow me to embark on a sponsored international internship which aligned perfectly with my career interests. Thankfully, I received my YLIP acceptance right after graduation and, shortly afterward, I was ecstatic to learn that I would be travelling to South Africa for a six-month placement at Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR).

My placement at LHR was enlightening in many ways. For starters, it was the first time I came face-to-face with issues that figured prominently throughout my studies especially armed conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa and the resulting plight of asylum seekers. I quickly learned the issue takes on an entirely different reality when speaking to individuals who survived extreme persecution in their countries of origin. Over the course of my placement I consulted with clients who witnessed their entire villages destroyed and pillaged by rebels, who watched their family members brutally murdered, or who endured severe gender-based violence. Speaking to people who experienced what I only learned about through class lectures and textbooks was a profound experience that was incredibly illuminating on the severity and grim reality of the refugee crisis in Africa and throughout the world.

Working at LHR also directly exposed me to the high levels of government corruption prevalent in the global South. In South Africa immigration and refugee law is primarily implemented by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and its officials are the gate-keepers of the process of determining whether an individual qualifies for refugee status in the country. Unfortunately, the DHA is riddled with backlog, corruption, and xenophobia making the entire system highly dysfunctional. Moreover, xenophobia and discrimination towards non-South African nationals is prevalent across many other government agencies, such as schools, hospitals, and police departments.

My role at LHR often involved communicating with these institutions, informing them that their behavior was unlawful, and reminding them of their human rights obligations as mandated by the South African Constitution or other governing legislation. At times, this aspect of my work was incredibly disheartening, especially in the South African context, as it demonstrated that state-condoned discrimination continues post- Apartheid. Nonetheless, it was very rewarding when I was able to assist migrants realize their rights even in simple ways such as ensuring that their children were enrolled in schools or helping them regain employment after being wrongfully terminated.

Of course, through my placement at LHR I also acquired many practical skills necessary in working at a legal clinic such as legal drafting, research, conducting client interviews, and corresponding with various stakeholders. By the end of my placement I would attend court regularly to submit documents and observe my clients' hearings. I was also engaged with LHR's community outreach initiatives aimed at educating migrant communities on their rights as refugees/asylum seekers in South Africa and attended many high-profile seminars and conferences on pertinent human rights issues in South Africa.

After completing my term at LHR I have remained in South Africa for a couple of months to further travel and explore this beautiful country. While living in Pretoria I had the pleasure of meeting many other international interns and expats working at the various embassies, NGOs, universities, and international organizations located in the city. I am most happy that participating in YLIP has allowed me to meet many like- minded friends and mentors and has exposed me to vast network of international professionals. This has greatly broadened my job search to a global scale in both legal and non-legal realms and I am excited to see where my next adventure will take me.