IN A continued effort to raise awareness on the plight and rights of refugees, The Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training & Advocacy (Aresta) held a World Refugee Day Dialogue at the East London Museum earlier this week.
Representatives from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the Department of Education, the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa), Absa Bank and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) Refugee Rights Centre were all in attendance.
Representatives addressed an audience of foreign nationals, community workers and South African citizens illustrating their position with regards to refugees and asylum seekers.
“As the Human Rights Commission, part of our role is to protect the rights of everyone that finds themselves within the borders of our country,” Eastern Cape Human Rights Commissioner Aubrey Mdazana said.
While all representatives who were present at the event, shared Mdazana’s sentiments and firmly stated their support for refugees and asylum seekers, the dialogue uncovered the harsh realities and difficulties that refugees in South Africa face on a daily basis.
Among prominent issues are obtaining legal documentation from SA government departments, opening bank accounts, xenophobia, obtaining social grants and refugee children being rejected by South African schools.
“The main issue is obtaining valid and legal documentation for refugees and asylum seekers, NMMU Refugee Rights Centre lawyer , Lynton Harris said. “
What should be an easy task, in reality is a process fraught with difficulties,” he added.
The NMMU Refugee Rights Centre offers free legal services to refugees and asylum seekers in the Eastern Cape and trains public servants on the rights of these refugees.
“Our main purpose is to protect refugees, and once they have obtained the correct legal documentation they are automatically protected, but the systems, attitudes and prejudice of South Africa make this increasingly difficult for refugees, ” Harris said.
He reiterated this, mentioning the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) new policy, whereby affidavits can no longer be issued to foreigners.
“When getting a simple document like an affidavit is made impossible for refugees and asylum seekers, their lives become riddled with complications,” Harris said.
“When simple documentation is difficult to obtain, it spills over into every part of a person’s life; opening a bank account, finding a job, getting your children accepted into schools, renewing permits – all these tasks become impossible.”
Harris also indicated that according to the department of home affairs, asylum seekers or refugees residing in South Africa are not allowed to marry.
“It is so clearly wrong. You don’t have to be a lawyer to recognise that it is discriminatory on every level,” Harris said. Throughout the dialogue, these various issues were brought to light and discussed with Aresta, who is offering to collaborate with government departments and facilitate dialogue between public servants and foreign nationals.
“Every minute, 24 people are forcefully displaced worldwide. Nearly 65 million people are displaced worldwide- that is an entire nation of people who are forced to seek asylum in other countries,” Harris said.
SAPS was also invited to the event, but were unable to attend.
The Department of Home Affairs also received an invite, but did not respond, according to organisers.