‘Access to asylum: The gateway to safety and refugee rights’ was the theme under which the Centre for Human Rights in the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria (UP) marked World Refugee Day during a panel discussion held recently.
World Refugee Day is a United Nations-designated occasion that is observed annually on 20 June to highlight the lives and challenges faced by refugees (defined as those forced to flee their home countries as a result of conflict, war or persecution), and to urge the global community to stand in solidarity with them.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Regional Bureau in Southern Africa covers 16 countries in the region. The Southern Africa region is estimated to host about 801 000 refugees, 285 000 asylum seekers and 37 100 other individuals of concern.
Panellists at the discussion included Guy-Rufin Guernas, UNHCR Senior Protection Coordinator at the UNHCR Regional Bureau in Southern Africa; Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Africa Director International Commission of Jurists; Judge Dunstan Mlambo, Judge President of the Gauteng division of the High Court of South Africa and Chapter President: International Association of Refugee and Migration Judges; and Barthelemy Mwanza Ngane, Co-Chair UNHCR Global Youth Advisory Council.
The event was moderated by broadcast anchor Leanne Manas, who is also a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
According to Guernas, there are more nationalities seeking asylum in Southern Africa than in any other region in Africa. He adds that Africans need to change their ideas around refugees seeking asylum and security, as some countries continue to identify refugees as foreigners.
The journey of moving from one country to another to seek asylum is never easy. Along the way, refugees find themselves faced with many obstacles, including being oppressed by officials and citizens.
Some refugees use their stories to help others through advocacy work, as Ngane, shows. “When tribal war erupted in the DRC, I had to move to Zimbabwe. It was a long and difficult journey as I had to use different modes of transport. I also did not have money and enough information about where I was going. However, I managed to arrive in Harare and some Congolese on the road directed me to the refugee camp. This was a very challenging time of my life as I was in a different country and not able to speak English properly as I had studied in French at university.”
During this time, Ngane started many youth action projects to empower young people who found themselves in similar situations. In 2017, he oversaw sports and arts at the UNHCR Global Youth Advisory Council and subsequently became Co-Chair of the council in 2020.
Judge Mlambo pointed out in his opening statement that the role of courts is to ensure that the rights of asylum seekers are adequately protected and adhered to by officials.
“We need a strongly independent judiciary to fiercely ensure that the rights of refugees seeking asylum are protected, not only in South Africa but across the region,” he said. “Refugee law is a specialised area of our law. As a result, when a case is presented before the courts, judges must know what is happening, understand international jurisprudence and adjudicate cases of refugees fairly and with dignity.”
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