South Africa: Beacon of false hope for refugees

By Laura MacLean

For the past four months I have been working at Lawyers for Human Rights in Durban, South Africa. This office runs a migrant rights program, focusing on the needs of asylum seekers and recognized refugees. My main tasks are to interview clients, assess refugee claims, research country conditions and write appeal submissions. I also had the opportunity to observe a refugee appeal hearing, to travel to a nearby town to offer in-person advice to a remote community and to attend social justice events in the city on behalf of the office.

The internship is incredibly practical, as I engage directly with clients. I am given autonomy to manage my own caseload and to develop legal arguments for my clients. The job occasionally becomes hectic in ways only an underfunded law clinic in a developing country can be. For instance, it is not uncommon to haul bystanders into the interview rooms to act as impromptu interpreters for clients who need to communicate the traumatic events that led them to flee their home. I have been exposed to a different perspective on refugee law, and yet there are striking similarities between the Canadian and South African experiences. Both countries are beacons of hope for asylum seekers as they are perceived to be peaceful places where human rights are respected. Unfortunately, both countries fall short of their reputations. Legal, administrative and practical barriers, in addition to xenophobia and the politicization of migration, prevent those most vulnerable from achieving justice and fully integrating into the communities. In South Africa for instance, there are only three Refugee Reception Offices in the entire country and, due to high demand, asylum seekers are often turned away and left without temporary permits to protect them from detention or deportation. They are asked to return every week to regularize their status, and hope dwindles and frustration grows as the weeks and months slip by without achieving any kind of security.

Women migrants tend to face unique challenges that leave them at a disadvantage. In my experience, they are less likely to have formal education, more likely to have dependent children, to say nothing of the pervasiveness of sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict contexts. Every week my heart breaks for the women and girls who put aside their own trauma to take care of their children or younger siblings in a legal system that purports to prioritize the best interest of the child. Yet the same legal system enables schools to deny enrolment and basic education to children because they lack proper documentation. The resilience and selflessness of these women truly is inspiring. I only wish countries of asylum did not force them to make such sacrifices.