SOUTH AFRICA: University advances refugee rights

The rights of refugees in South Africa's Eastern Cape province are being safeguarded through a recently-launched refugee legal rights centre at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth. The goal is to assist foreigners seeking asylum.

The centre is funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"We want to empower our stakeholders through legal education, research and engagement driven by justice, integrity and excellence," said law faculty executive dean Professor Vivienne Lawack-Davids.

Essentially this means that not only will foreigners' rights be protected, but that NMMU's law students will gain a greater understanding of the practical issues in dealing with refugees. This will form an important part of their training.

Since opening two months ago, the Refugee Rights Centre in the city's central business district has successfully assisted more than 70 asylum seekers with wide-ranging problems.

These include discriminatory treatment from officials at government institutions, difficulty in registering to study at university and colleges, difficulty in applying for permanent residence, unlawful arrest, unlawful detention, problems with extensions of section 22 permits, and undocumented and unaccompanied minors.

Thus far the centre has helped people from Zimbabwe, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo, and even China, though the majority come from Zimbabwe, Congo and Somalia.

"Refugees often have major difficulties with the application process for seeking asylum and they are regularly discriminated against," said the new centre's director Linton Harmse. He and the only other permanent employee, Sarine Broderick, are both attorneys.

The processing of foreigners' asylum applications is often conducted in a mean-spirited manner by officials of the Department of Home Affairs.

"They suffer varying forms of prejudice because many people have a negative perception of foreigners. The truth of the matter is that foreigners can add incredible value to any country in terms of culture, education, skills and the expertise they possess. Their presence should therefore be embraced," said Harmse.

"Thirty percent of these clients are married and their asylum applications are inclusive of their spouses and at least two minor children," Harmse added.

NMMU recently selected 'respect for diversity' as one of its key values. About 8% of its student body comes from outside South Africa.

The Port Elizabeth's centre, which has been tasked to offer comprehensive advice and assistance in the field of refugee law, is the third at a university in South Africa, and the first in the Eastern Cape. All its services are free.

The centre collaborates with relevant stakeholders including Home Affairs, NGOs, various refugee forums and Legal Aid SA. The latter, for example, in collaboration with the Refugee Rights Centre secured the release from detention of a Zimbabwean juvenile. The youngster had no family in the metro and was released into the care of the centre.

"We are helping to do what is legally right for people. These are people who often do not have a voice," said Lawack-Davids, adding that the centre would provide advocacy and training where needed.

According to a recent study by the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa's refugee reception offices are unable to perform their primary function - that of investigating the validity of asylum claims and distinguishing between those who need protection as refugees and those who do not.

"As a result, there are many people with valid asylum claims who are returning to unbearable and even life-threatening situations causing South Africa to violate the law," said Lawack-Davids.