Let the Work Begin

       Monday morning’s call to prayer and the arrival of Aunt Lizzy, the housekeeper, ushered in my first week of work at People Against Suffering, Oppression, and Poverty (PASSOP), a non-profit organization that works with asylum-seekers, refugees, and immigrants to South Africa. The organization strives to combat injustice and discrimination in South Africa, and pursues South African human rights and community empowerment through a combination of education, legal services, activism and community participation.

       PASSOP recently relocated from its previous home in Wynberg to the City Centre. It operates out of a small one room office and has three full-time employees, as well as a few other workers who cycle through at various points throughout the day. There are often a number of people who drop by throughout the day, some who are clients, others who seem to be part time employees/volunteers, and many more who seem to just come and chat and leave. When I first got there, Bernard gave me a two inch thick binder to read through which would give me an overview of the issues that the office works with. I started in on that Monday morning, but shortly after, Tendai invited me to go with her to an Africa Day event. I had no idea what to expect (I don’t think she even entirely knew what it was), but always up for a field trip, I readily agreed. We walked up to the Slave Lodge, where we walked briefly through some of the exhibits, including one focusing on music as part of the struggle against apartheid. It was fascinating, though I barely got to read anything, and I intend to go back in the near future for a more in-depth exploration. We then joined a group from a local human rights organization, as well as a large high school class for a group discussion regarding the current state of South Africa, xenophobia, and other cultural matters. We sat around in a large, informal circle, and after starting out with an icebreaker game of telephone (you try that when the message can be in any of a half dozen languages), a moderator led the discussion, and everyone chimed in with passionate and articulate opinions about the current state of things. One thing I had to get used to there (and in many situations since) is how quickly people switch between languages. It is completely fluid—they can be speaking English one second then go into Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, or French then back to English; it seems that they pick the word in whichever language that best fits what they are trying to say, but with no regard for continuity. Anyways, in addition to the discussion, there were also some poetry recitations (which were amazing—more slam poetry), and then the group broke into spontaneous song and dance at the end. I was the only non-African there (the majority were South African, Congolese, and Zimbabwean), and though I felt ill-equipped to contribute to the discussion, I appreciated sitting back and listening to the enlightening discussion.

       Afterwards, we picked up food and headed back to the office, where I then sat around talking with Tendai and a Somali man, Abdul, for most of the rest of the afternoon. Part of me felt like I should get back to reading my binder, but the other part of me was enjoying sitting and listening to discussions about Somali and Zim cultures, about Islam, about the state of the prison system in South Africa, etc. And I quickly realized that sitting around and conversing is a big part of what people do here throughout the day, so I let go of my inclinations to get stuff done and just went with it.

       Tuesday and Wednesday I spent the majority of my time hunched over my binder getting a crash course in South African law and procedure. This binder contains everything from portions of the South Africa Constitution, to the Refugee Act of 1998 (and Amendments), to international law. And it covered such varied topics as housing law, refugee/asylum law and procedure, the structure of the South African court system, the police system, banking and business law, employment law, and certain fundamental rights (right to social security, right to employment, right to education, right to healthcare). While helpful, it was just a lot of information to cram in at once. By Wednesday afternoon I had made it through all however many hundred pages, and I finally got to sit down with Bernard to discuss more about what the office does and what I would be working on, and had the asylum process explained to me in greater detail. He sent me some sample appeals letters to read over (since they are all different depending on what country the person is coming from—not only do we include information about why that person had to leave, but we do research on the current state of affairs of the country and include that information in the report), in anticipation of my starting on some of my own cases the following day. Though it is a little daunting knowing that you are at least partially responsible for these people’s fates, I looked forward to sinking my teeth into some actual and meaningful work.

       Thursday was the first somewhat busy day at the office. After a late start due to some out-of-office meeting, there were a dozen people waiting to be helped, so I got thrown right in. The first person I helped had applied for permanent refugee status back in 2005, and after an acknowledgment of his application by the government, he never heard anything back. He reapplied for permanent status in August of last year, and has yet to hear anything regarding his application. In an effort to find out the status of his application(s), I sent an email to a number of individuals at the Department of Home Affairs on his behalf. We will see if anything comes of it…In the afternoon I assisted a young Somali man appeal his denial of refugee status. This case, like so many of the other appeals I’ve read, is hard because his claim for asylum is rather non-specific. When I asked him about why he left Somalia and why he doesn’t want to go back, I got a general response about civil war and terrorist groups there. He couldn’t point to anything specific that caused him to leave, just a general state of affairs, and while I understood his worries and his desire to leave, it is hard when his claim is similar to thousands and thousands of others. (It seems like the cases that are successful in obtaining refugee status are the ones where the person can point to specific events that caused them to flee, and then can show that the situation has not changed and thus they would be in danger if they were to return.) For cases like this where it is a generalized assertion regarding the state of affairs in a country, the office typically drafts a generic appeal that asserts ongoing conflict in the country, the presence of al-Shabaab, etc.

       Friday morning I once again had a chance to get out of the office and, along with Bernard, attended a Refugee Rights Roundtable (a discussion with a number of leading groups working on refugee rights, advocacy and programming in the Cape Town area) at the Cape Town Central Library. The Deputy Director of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration’s Office of Assistance for Africa at the U.S. Department of State Mary Lange was in town and wanted to hear from the organizations about what was happening in Cape Town, the challenges they face, and the concerns that they have.  She was also interested in hearing how the different organizations worked together so as to not duplicate each other’s work and to cover any gaps in refugee assistance. There were representatives from a number of different organizations there, including Sonke, ARESTA (Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training and Advocacy), CTRC (Cape Town Refugee Centre), PASSOP (People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty), and LRC (Legal Resources Centre). All of them offer slightly different services to refugees, and they will refer people to each other’s organization based on the needs of the individual. Sonke has a primary focus on language assistance and refugee health and rights; ARESTA focuses on education and training in an attempt to help refugees better integrate into South African society; CTRC has started new psycho-social programming, as well as offering vocational training, focusing on social cohesion, and providing some financial assistance to those in serious need; PASSOP largely provides legal assistance and does some advocacy, helping asylum seekers with their appeals and assisting  immigrants with their socio-economic rights and access to justice; and LRC provides free legal assistance and assists with litigation. It was very informative to hear from each of the groups as to the types of work they do and the challenges they individually and collectively face.

       One of the biggest challenges mentioned was the closure of the Refugee Reception Office in Cape Town. Among the other concerns raised/noted deficits were a lack of funds for HIV+gender programs, the absence of a women’s shelter for refugee women, the absence of a center where refugees can get primary info when they first arrive in the country (i.e. where the closest clinic, school, police station, etc. is), an overall lack of funding, new laws regarding birth certificates, and challenges regarding the enforcement of court orders. The whole experience was quite enlightening, and I appreciated the opportunity to attend.

       The rest of the afternoon at the office was fairly quiet, apart from finishing up the appeal for my Somali client from the day before. While I haven’t had many clients to work on yet, learning about the asylum application process has been an enlightening experience. When someone first comes to the country, they are supposed to apply for asylum as soon as possible. This is complicated, however, by the fact that some of the Refugee Reception Offices (the first stop for asylum seekers) have been shut down, including the one in Cape Town. This means that those individuals who arrive/reside in Cape Town, must travel to either Durban (over 1600 km away), Pretoria (almost 1500 km away), or Messina (almost 2000 km away) to apply for asylum, which is both a time and financial burden for many individuals. For those individuals who are unable to travel to one of those locations immediately, PASSOP will often provide them a letter to carry around with them that explains that they are newly arrived in the country, that they are aware that they need to go to one of those locations to apply for status, and that they are working to obtain the money for the journey, and asks that the police (should they be stopped) give them leniency. How helpful these letters are, I’m not sure, but at least it signals to the police that these individuals are taking steps to comply. When they do make it to an RRO, the asylum seeker fills out an application/eligibility determination form, which asks for biographical information, why they left their country, whether they were politically active or in the military, and what the current situation is in their country. Once the person has completed the application, they are given an asylum seeker permit (also known as a Section 22 permit). This permit allows them to legally remain, work and study in South Africa, pending the outcome of their claim for asylum. The permit is only valid for a limited time, and must be renewed every few months. Within 30 working days after submitting their application, they are invited for a status determination interview with a Refugee Status Determination Officer (though in reality it takes significantly longer), where the RSDO explains the procedure, makes sure they understand their rights/obligations, and asks additional questions. A decision is then made as to whether to grant refugee status or not. If refugee status is granted, they will be given a formal document recognizing their refugee status.  The document is only valid for a limited time—previously 2 years, now 4—but it is renewable. If the asylum application is rejected—it can be rejected as either unfounded (in which case they explain why it was rejected) or manifestly unfounded (which means that there is no legal basis for the claim—it falls outside the Refugee Act)—the person can appeal the decision. That is where PASSOP often comes into play, assisting individuals with their appeal for asylum. The person will come into the office, bringing any paperwork they have, and someone from PASSOP will look over that paperwork—with a focus on the claim for asylum and the explanation for denial—and interview the person about why they left their home country and why they can’t go back. We then draft an appeal that focuses on both objective criteria—what has been going on in a country (So, for example, appeals for individuals who have left Somalia discuss the political instability as well as the ongoing presence of al-Shabaab.)—as well as subjective criteria—what, if anything, caused them specifically to leave. We provide a drafted appeal to the asylum seeker who then has to bring it to a police station to have the affidavit certified; has to make copies; and then has to bring it to the Department of Home Affairs. The process is further complicated by the fact that paperwork is often lost and there are lengthy time delays. If a person is granted refugee status, after a number of years they can apply for permanent residency. The government will review their application to determine whether the ongoing situation in the person’s country of origin warrants that determination—i.e. that the situation remains so bad that it is unlikely the person will ever be able to return—and either grant permanent residency or deny it (though the person still maintains their refugee status and can continue to renew it).

       Besides assisting with asylum applications and appeals, PASSOP also assists asylum seekers and refugees with a number of other tangentially related matters, for example right to work, right to study, and right to healthcare. Asylum seekers with a permit, as well as refugees, are automatically entitled to the same rights as South Africans when it comes to these rights, however, employers, schools, and hospitals will often deny asylum seekers and refugees these rights (often because they believe they are not entitled to them). PASSOP will write letters to the employer/school/hospital explaining these rights to which people are entitled. In addition, PASSOP will try to assist when there are labor disputes, housing issues, etc.

       Thus endeth my first week of work in Cape Town. With one week under my belt, I picked up a bottle of vino and headed home for the weekend.