It was a Monday morning and I knew the waiting room of our small legal clinic would be packed with new arrivals to South Africa. Most were from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, having arrived on foot or as stowaways in transport trucks, travelling for days or weeks at a time to reach safety. As they registered at the front desk, they were asked to explain in a few words why they had fled their home countries. The responses were often similar: “War.” “Insecurity.” “I opposed the government and was afraid of being killed.”
For the first six months of 2016, I worked in Durban for the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme of Lawyers for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization with offices throughout South Africa. With a staff of less than ten people, the Durban office assists hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees a year. These are people, like you or me, who had no choice but to leave their homes, their families and their lives behind because the threat of arbitrary detention, torture, forced recruitment, sexual violence, or even death, was too great. They are in desperate need of legal advice as they join the nearly one million people attempting to navigate South Africa’s asylum seeker process.
Life as a newcomer to South Africa is very difficult. While many perceive the country to be a safe haven from violence and persecution, the reality is that xenophobic rhetoric and corruption abound. State institutions, like the Department of Home Affairs and the police, are well known to engage in corrupt practices. Even the legal profession is not immune, with unscrupulous lawyers charging high fees for summary legal advice. In short, it is not a very welcoming environment for asylum seekers and refugees.
My experience in Durban was often challenging, as I was working within a system that seemed to raise roadblocks for asylum seekers at every turn. Yet as frustrating as the circumstances were for me, my clients were the ones who were truly affected. Immigration officials repeatedly told one of them, a teenager, that his asylum application could not be processed without the appointment of a guardian. Imagine his dismay when the department responsible for children told him that the court would never appoint him a guardian unless he could bring documents proving that his parents had been killed in his home country of Somalia. In effect, he was being denied the right to seek refugee status in South Africa. Another client, a young mother, was left feeling helpless when she was told her status as an asylum seeker made her children ineligible to attend school or obtain basic medical care. This was a clear violation of her children’s rights to education and health, which on paper are guaranteed under South African law.
Our advocacy was very important in these kinds of cases, as we put pressure on the government and service providers to recognize our clients’ basic human rights. I do not know whether my Somali client succeeded in having a guardian appointed, but before I left South Africa the young mother called to thank me for helping her and her children through a very difficult time. She explained that it was the first time she had been treated like a human being since she arrived in South Africa.
I think often about my clients and the numerous challenges I am sure they continue to face. I also think about the work of organizations like Lawyers for Human Rights. In South Africa, Canada and elsewhere, these organizations are helping people who would otherwise have no access to legal services. They play an extremely important role in supporting asylum seekers and refugees and I am glad to have been a small part of that support.
Emelie Kozak was a participant in the CBA's Young Lawyers International Program, funded by Global Affairs Canada. From January to July 2016, she worked in the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme of Lawyers for Human Rights in Durban, South Africa. The views expressed here are the author's own.
Photo licensed under Creative Commons by Courtneyrosebrooks