Today is my second day of work and I have begun to learn about South Africa’s asylum appeals process, which I believe will be the main focus of my work at PASSOP. Typically after a refugee’s first application, he or she has an interview with a Refugee Status Determination Officer or RSDO, and then that officer evaluates the refugee’s claim. I soon learned that even refugees who have suffered terrible human rights violations are often denied because they not only have to prove that they were persecuted in the past, but that they have a “well-founded fear of persecution in the future.” Giving evidence of future persecution can often be difficult. How do you prove that a future event will take place? Bernard explained that we basically provide Home Affairs with credible sources such as UN, US State Department, Human Rights Watch, or International Criminal Court reports, or articles from respected media outlets like the Guardian or the BBC that demonstrate that the current situation in the refugee’s country makes it unsafe for him or her to return. He then sent me several sample appeal letters for refugees from a variety of different countries so I could see how to provide evidence and rebut the findings of the RDSO.
My first client for appeal was from the DRC. I was instructed to read the RDSO decision which rejected his application first, and then interview him to see if there is anything I can add to his appeal letter that could help him demonstrate more concretely why he left. For example, the denial of appeal letter is often very vague on details such as what province or town the person might be from or the name of the political party that they were affiliated with or the name of the party that persecuted them. An interview can help you establish details of their story so you can research the situation and provide Home Affairs with proof for what the asylum candidate is claiming. Additionally, an interview can help you clarify any apparent inconsistencies that might have given the RDSO a reason to deny a refugee’s application. I would soon learn that this unfortunately often happens with asylum applications. Because English is often not the applicant’s native language, they can misunderstand questions posed to them, are unable to fully explain their reasons for leaving, or why they are afraid to return. Even if there was a translator present during his or her interview, the translator might not fully communicate what he or she has said. Once I saw a rejection letter where the claim was only two lines long and so vague that the RDSO said he could not find the refugee’s story credible. It essentially just said, “I am afraid of being persecuted.” However, once I was able to interview him in French, a language he was much more comfortable with, he was able to explain that he was a chauffeur, and that his uncle, who was part of opposition leader, Jean Pierre Bemba’s, militia, borrowed his car to attempt a coup d’état against the Kabila party. Once he realized what had happened, he knew that he had to flee for fear that the government would blame him for the attack since the car was registered under his name. He said that there is no process for the accused, so he would surely be arrested or killed with no investigation into the matter. I then wrote his letter explaining his story, and also explained that this was not in his original application because he had misunderstood the questions and was unable to communicate well in English. He told me that there was a translator present, but it was obvious that he or she lacked the ability or the will to actually translate this explanation.
Later that night, Krishna and I went to Percy’s fundraiser at the University of Cape Town. We also brought our friend Kate, an American doctoral candidate here in South Africa who is researching for her dissertation. Percy was so nervous about speaking in front of everyone, but she did a beautiful job telling her story and explaining her surgery and recovery process. After her speech, John Jeffrey, the Deputy Minister of Justice spoke about gender violence in South Africa and what the Ministry of Justice is doing to ensure justice for victims. He explained that while the South African Constitution is very progressive, hate crimes are not currently a part of statutory law. He also explained that the ministry is working to change this and will soon hold a national debate on the matter. His speech gave me a good overview of South African equal protection law, but I must admit that I preferred Percy’s speech. As I later would tell Percy, Mr. Jeffrey’s speech came from his head whereas her speech came from her heart. There was a wonderful turnout at the event, and I hope the proceeds raised will help Percy continue to heal by defraying some of her medical costs.
Below is a picture of PASSOP's Staff. Percy is pictured on the far left, wearing a gray hat. Also pictured are Bernard and Slyva from the paralegal team, Koko, the head of the LGBTI project, Tendai, our administrative coordinator, Junior, a volunteer, and PASSOP's four interns: Shannyn, Matthew, Lucy, and myself. Sadly, we are having a goodbye party for Shannyn who is returning home to Toronto.