An appeal

The small waiting area was already packed with refugees at 8 a.m. when we arrived. More refugees, including the LRC client I had recently completed country research about, lined up along the wall in the hallway because there were no seats available. They were told to be there at 7:30 a.m. Our client's day started long before that, traveling alone from another city in South Africa and arriving at 6 a.m. to stand outside in the dark, cold winter morning until security let her in the building. Our client was here because a Refugee Status Determination Officer denied her application for asylum. She was granted a hearing this week to appeal the decision to the Refugee Appeal Board (RAB). 

I was warned by another intern that the day would be disorganized, so I expected chaos. What I experienced instead was an intense day of stressful waiting.

Not everyone was there for a hearing. Some refugees were there to renew their permits or deal with other issues related to their asylum status, so the room emptied out as the day went on. I took note of another woman seated along the wall. When she would get up to stretch her legs, she would leave her bag behind to save her seat. Standing across from this waiting area, I was able to finally see the human effect of South Africa's inefficient implementation of The Refugees Act. Our client alone has been in South Africa since 2010 waiting for recognition. Nine years waiting to be able to find legal, gainful employment, go to school if she wanted to, enjoy basic rights and security that come with recognition. She did everything by the book. But one person decided her claim for asylum was not credible.

About that: It is difficult for refugees who first arrive in South Africa to complete the paperwork required to document their presence in the country. Many rely on complete strangers who can read and write English to convey their story to Home Affairs. In our client's case, the person who filled out her paperwork wrote down the details of her story incorrectly, stating something happened in her home country that did not. The United Nations provides a handbook for procedures and criteria for determining refugee status. The burden of proof is on the asylum seeker, but the standard is low. When his/her story overall is consistent, the asylum seeker should be given the benefit of the doubt by the examiner. This did not happen in our client's case.

So there we were, waiting for our chance to appear before the RAB. There are no sign-up sheets, no appointment times. Fortunately for our client, she had representation. The RAB had two judicial reviews to do, then they would begin meeting with the refugees who had lawyers, and then they would hear everyone else.  Earlier that morning while I was standing with our client, she told me she had been fired from her job the night before because she was coming to Cape Town too often to deal with her asylum status. Confirmation that she would be heard was a success in itself.

And then came the waiting.

The hearings take as long as they take. There is no time limit for the RAB to hear from the client and his/her representatives, and to ask questions so that they understand the story to assist them in making their decision. I would check in with our client to let her know where she was in the queue as hearings were completed, but it was hard to maintain confidence that time would not run out. Finally, at around 3:30 p.m., it was our client's turn. Before we went into the hearing room, one of the RAB members spoke to the other refugees waiting for their hearings, including the woman I had noticed earlier. They would have to come back another day. At 7:30 a.m. For all the discomfort I experienced that day, no water, nothing to eat since breakfast, limited bathroom availability, I could not imagine what it felt like for them. And the difference between the other woman who had been waiting and our client? Legal representation. The look on her face. I never spoke to her so I can not say for sure, but it did not seem like anger to me. It looked like exhaustion.

For all the waiting, our client's hearing went by in what felt like a flash. Our client walked out of her hearing transformed. In the few interactions I had with her leading up to this day, I had never seen her so loose. She did not even have a decision (it typically takes two years or longer) but she was so grateful for the opportunity to tell the truth of her life in hopes of getting the recognition she needs to remain in the relative safety of South Africa. I hope the same will one day be true for those other people in that waiting room.