Refugee Rights in the Spotlight

Wednesday, 23 April, 2008 - 09:28

By Yoke BarrishThe Refugee Aid Organisation (RAO) works to support the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa.

By Yoke Barrish

The Refugee Aid Organisation (RAO) works to support the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa. Officially launched in Pretoria on 11 April 2008, RAO will serve as an umbrella organisation to synchronise services provided to refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa.

Stories of the abuse and exploitation of refugees in South Africa abound. In cities and informal settlements across the country, many refugees live in fear of being arrested, attacked and victimised for being ‘foreigners’. Xenophobia has lead to major eruptions in townships such as Atteridgeville, Shoshanguve and Laudium, where community members have turned on and attacked ‘foreigners’, sometimes burning their homes, shops and severely assaulting them.

One reason for the high levels of xenophobia in the country is a lack of understanding amongst ordinary people about refugees and asylum seekers. Many believe that refugees and asylum seekers are illegal foreigners who are a strain on the economy and who have come to ‘steal’ the few available jobs. 

What the public may not know is that South Africa has signed a number of regional and international laws and instruments which require it to accept and protect refugees. These include the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocols, as well as the OAU Convention governing specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa.

National laws also provide protection to asylum seekers and refugees. These include the South African Constitution, the Refugees Act (1998), the Immigration Amendment Act (2004) amongst others. This does not mean however, that South Africa will open its gates to anyone who wants to come to the country. Simply stated a ‘refugee’ is a specific person who is looking for protection in another country as he or she will be persecuted in their country for a particular reason including; political, religious views, ethnicity, race or by virtue of their membership of a particular social group. Hence war is not the only reason for applying for asylum.

Asylum is not given to a person applying for it immediately. They must first go through the asylum process and prove that they will be persecuted if returned to their country of origin. However, during this time which may take up to eight years (by law it should only take 180 days) these people need to work and sustain themselves.

Refugees are given the same rights as any other South African in the country, hence they can work and study in South Africa and are expected to integrate into the country. Due to the inadequate documentation given to refugees, finding employment is virtually impossible so most become informal traders. Few resources are available to assist them integrate into South Africa. 

The RAO offers a number of services to refugees and asylum seekers including

  • Awareness raising to the public on the realities of refugees and asylum seekers
  • Women’s and men’s support groups which is also assisting in finding employment opportunities
  • Monthly outreach sessions are held for South African’s to socialise with refugees
  • School programmes to facilitate integration for children
  • A refugee community newspaper (launched 11 April 2008)

Future plans include;

  • A database synchronising all services that will be placed on the RAO website
  • A business banquet - to invite banks and businesses to discuss the difficulties refugees face in opening bank accounts and applying for employment due to policies they have in place
  • A blanket drive – a fundraising event where all the benefits will be donated to buy blankets for the refugees and asylum seekers
  • A Christmas Fete - to bring different communities of Pretoria together, to highlight the plight of refugees and to create an environment for refugees to integrate with the community
  • A shelter to assist refugees once they are in the country to stabilise and integrate into the country

This article was written by Yoke Barrish, from the Refugee Rights Organisation

- Picture courtesy of World Council of Churches 

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