South Africa: Refugees Speak Truth to Power
07 September 2015

An elderly refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo speaks passionately about her legitimate concerns, pertaining to corruption at Home Affairs. (Gushwell F. Brooks/Jesuit Refugee Sevice)
... a culture of corruption is being created. “Staff start late and before you know it they are on a tea break, then on lunch break, they spend their day not attending to us, moving about and then before you know it, they go home. Of course people will pay bribes to get into the queue!”

Johannesburg, 20 August 2015 - Samson Ogunyemi, Advocacy Officer at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) South Africa Office, organised an opportunity for refugees to have their voices heard by those in power.  With representatives from the UNHCR, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and more importantly, a senior official from the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), ordinary asylum seekers and refugees had an opportunity to have their concerns raised in an open forum, where their questions had to be answered by a panel of experts from across the spectrum.


A panel of speakers comprised of the UNHCR, LHR, Pro Bono.org, DHA, Corruption Watch and JRS kicked off the day at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Catholic Church Hall in Johannesburg, with addresses outlining their rights and responsibilities as people seeking refuge in South Africa, from the countries of their birth. Also present was the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) Director, Father Peter-John Pearson, Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), Co-ordinating Body of Refugee and Migrant Communities (CBRMC), City of Johannesburg - Migration Unit and Pastoral Care for Migrants and Refugees of Archdiocese of Johannesburg. 


The representative from the UNHCR started off by explaining that their work, in working with refugees, is facilitated through implementing partner organisations such as JRS. They work with organisations that have the expertise in dealing with the needs of refugees and it is through the livelihood programmes that JRS has initiated that we empower urban refugees –such as those within the South African context – to support themselves and their families. Immediate emergency assistance with the educational needs of children such as school fees and uniforms as well as other assistance in the form of emergency assistance with accommodation and food vouchers, are but few of the many forms of assistance that refugees and asylum seekers can obtain from JRS, as Sam Khoza, a social worker at JRS, Johannesburg, Country Office, explained. 


Tshenolo Masha from Pro Bono.org as well as Anjuli Maistry and Wayne Ncube from LHR expanded on the free legal services they provide for refugees in not just asserting their rights, but through the administrative processes that entrench those rights. Masha explained that the term “pro bono” is an old Latin term, that stands for “the greater good” and that their legal services aims to bridge this gap by connecting refugees and asylum seekers that cannot afford expensive legal assistance by connecting them with legal expertise in the field.


The real confrontation of the day emanated from Mr Sibonelo Manana’s address. Mr Manana, speaking on behalf of the DHA, is the Centre Manager at the Refugee Reception Office (RRO) at Marabastad. With a recent expose on the high incidence of corruption at Marabastad - an expose Father David Holdcroft, JRS Southern Africa Regional Director commented on via a column -, the air felt heavy with the tension of burning questions refugees and asylum seekers had.


An elderly refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo spoke passionately about her legitimate concerns. She said that a culture of corruption is being created. “Staff start late and before you know it they are on a tea break, then on lunch break, they spend their day not attending to us, moving about and then before you know it, they go home. Of course people will pay bribes to get into the queue!” she said. 


Mr Manana admitted that the Marabstad RRO has a long way to go. “The working hours at Marabastad are supposed to be from 07:30 AM to 16:00 PM.” he said. He also mentioned that an electronic monitoring system could be introduced to monitor work attendance and the efficacy of those tasked to work with refugees at the Marabastad RRO. He assured all those present that the DHA is looking closely at Marabastad RRO and he urged refugees and asylum seekers to report fraud and corruption whenever it is encountered. DHA is also looking at introducing a new electronic booking system for asylum seekers and refugees to make appointments during the assessment of their cases. This Mr Manana said: “Would eliminate the use of stamps, and therefore security guards can no longer be bribed to extort money from people for place in the queue.”


Sessions such as these as a means of advocacy for refugees are important, not only as a means of sharing information with refugees as to what their rights and responsibilities are, but it is essential since refugees and asylum seekers can address their concerns directly and truthfully to those in power. Therefore the relationship between the government of the hosting nation and the refugee or asylum seeker is not only a top down arrangement, it is not an authoritarian relationship between the state and a subservient person, but much rather serves as a platform of equality, one where refugees can directly address their concerns and get answers immediately. 



Father David Holdcroft's, JRS Southern Africa Regional Director, column.



Press Contact Information
Gushwell F. Brooks
gushwell.brooks@jrs.net
+27 11 618 3404