That is how I feel about the work that I am doing this summer. Okay, so maybe the word hate is a bit strong. Frustration and disappointment are probably more appropriate descriptors.
On one hand I love what I am doing. I love that my days are spent talking to clients. I enjoy listening to their stories, as heart wrenching as some of them may be, and letting them know that someone is there to hear them out, without judgment and without rushing them. I love that when I do research or write an appeal, it is being done to benefit someone rather than as a purely academic exercise. I appreciate how much I have learned in a relatively short amount of time, how I can have somewhat articulate conversations about the current political climate in the DRC, that I can explain the permit process for Zimbabwean nationals, etc. I have enjoyed getting to take charge of a project—drafting appeals for the ZSP rejections that will then serve as templates for all of the ZSP appeals that we do. And I enjoy the company of my coworkers and fellow interns.
But there are also things about this job that can be incredibly frustrating. Some of it is at an organizational level. Like many NGOs, funding is incredibly tight, but when it starts interfering with the work, I find it incredibly frustrating. There are only three full-time staff members, including the director who has his plate full with a number of different things so he can’t always be involved in the day to day work and another who does not deal with client cases. As such, most of the work falls on the shoulders of the interns; without them, I don’t know how the office would stay afloat. Relatedly, most of the programs discussed on the website have disappeared or become virtually non-functioning due to a combined lack of staffing and lack of funding. Besides a staffing issue, there is a serious absence of organization that I find incredibly frustrating. For one thing, there are no client files. So if someone has been into the office previously, there is no way of finding what has been done for them in the past. And then there are the lack of funds. I understand that running a non-profit is financially challenging, but when we are resorting to arts and crafts projects involving a hole punch, twine, and colored paper to try to organize some things because we don’t have the funds to buy the handful of binders we would need, it is a bit frustrating.
But as challenging and frustrating as some of the organizational stuff may be, that pales in comparison to some of the cases that we have to deal with and the responses from Home Affairs. For example, most of the clients who come in for assistance with appeals bring a copy of their rejection letter from Home Affairs. The rejection letter contains the client’s information, details of their claim for asylum, the law regarding refugees, and the response of Home Affairs and their reasoning. These rejections are riddled with errors, for example confusing the gender of the individual, where they are from, and misstating their claim (either in part or in whole). Much of the appeals we write are spent trying to correct these inaccuracies, especially with regard to the claim. A related frustration is that many times Home Affairs claims that a situation in a country has stabilized and is therefore safe for the person to return to—this happens a lot with DRC cases—and we must explain and document to Home Affairs that this is not the case.
Another serious frustration has to do with lack of knowledge and bias by some of the officials. For example, I recently had a case of a man from Cameroon who came to South Africa seeking asylum as a gay man who was being persecuted because of his sexual orientation. To start with, the rejection letter from Home Affairs made my blood boil. It was so ridiculous and prejudicial and uninformed, that I felt like I needed to start by educating those writing it. South Africa is one of the most liberal countries when it comes to LGBTI rights—it is a stand out in Africa with its gay marriage rights, as 36 of its African neighbors criminalize homosexuality—yet the people who are the gatekeepers and enforcers of these rights are often incredibly biased and uninformed individuals. (It is not uncommon to hear government officials ask a person why they are gay.) The rejection letter in this particular case talks about how the man was not born gay (the fact that he had previous relations with women seems to be the issue here), that he converted to being gay (yes, that is actually the language used), that he became gay because he was tempted into it by a policeman’s son (but they also said it was because he was tired of lying women) and that therefore he was lying and he was not actually gay. There was more to it, but you get the gist. Additionally, Home Affairs kept insisting that Cameroon does not ban homosexuality, that the man would be safe there, and that this was not a good reason to leave his country. (But homosexuality is in fact illegal in Cameroon, and it carries a minimum of a five year jail sentence. Because it is very difficult to catch people in the act, many arrests are made based on how people present themselves. For example, one case I found involved a man convicted of “feminine mannerisms” for drinking Bailey’s Irish Cream. I wish I was joking.)
A separate frustration has to do with feeling like your hands are tied on certain matters. We recently had a man come to us looking for help with a labor matter. But after talking to him and getting his story in more depth, it became clear that this case had not only labor elements, but immigration and human trafficking issues as well. He was brought here from Zimbabwe to work for this man’s business. When he arrived he was told that he would be doing different work than he had been promised previously, and his passport was taken by the employer under the guise of getting him a work permit. However, the employer then refused to give the passport back (and he never got a work permit for the man), and would only pay the man occasionally and at far less than agreed upon. When the man eventually was able to get his passport back and break away from the employment, out tens of thousands of rand, he did not want to go back to Zimbabwe as he knew he would be fined for overstaying his visitor’s visa and would be banned from coming back to the country for five years. The man tried to seek the assistance of the Labor Department, but to little avail and involving interactions that were more than a little shady. He finally came to us, trying to get help in both getting his back pay, as well as wanting to hold the man accountable for taking people’s passports (apparently this has happened to a number of people). The problem is that our office is not equipped to handle this kind of case—our letter writing and phone calls are likely to be ineffective and we can’t pursue legal action if that is what is required. And because there is not only the labor issue but also the immigration issue, because the man is now here illegally, we can’t refer him to most places/there are not organizations in Cape Town that would be able to handle his case. UCT Law Clinic and LRC only deal with asylum/refugee cases (which this is not); LHR is located in Jo’burg; and approaching any other legal aid type organizations here is going to be problematic because of his legal status. When I asked about any organizations that deal with human trafficking, I was told that there aren’t any here in Cape Town (which I find hard to believe).
So while I really do love the work that I am doing and the people that I am meeting, it is also work that is fraught with a lot of frustration and disappointment.