Who is a refugee?

As you can imagine, a refugee’s flight from their country is often not planned and comes with many traumas and losses: loss of and separation from family and loved ones; loss of job or profession; and often – in the many, many cases that we deal with on a daily basis – personal injury, torture, rape and other traumas.

Daily, we at Refugee Social Services in Durban come face-to-face with the particular challenges and dangers inherent in a refugee’s journey to the country of refuge (in this case South Africa).

Constitution Hill: Refugees tell their stories at a Refugee Social Services event aimed at building solidarity between young South Africans and refugees.
(Image: Refugee Social Services)

Refugees tell their stories at a Refugee Social Services event aimed at building solidarity between young South Africans and refugees.

Just so we have a proper definition: a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country under threat of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion and/or  membership of a particular social group, or because of conflict and war. These people cannot return to their country.

To be officially recognised as a refugee, the person who has fled has to formally seek asylum in the receiving country.

South Africa’s refugee policy, developed post-1994 as the country was transitioning into democracy, was described by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, when he was UN High Commissioner of Refugees, as “one of the most progressive systems of refugee protection in the world”.

Our refugee policy, in line with our Constitution, is rooted in the principles of equality and human rights. When it was drawn up, it was felt important that those who sought our country’s protection were afforded rights of freedom of movement (therefore no refugee camps), access to health and education, and to work and study (for both asylum seekers – while they waited for their applications to be processed – and for recognised refugees). Also, we gave recognised refugees the right to apply for permanent residence after they had been in South Africa for five years.

Twenty-five years into democracy, the treatment of refugees (particularly those awaiting recognition as refugees, i.e asylum seekers) in South Africa has deteriorated to the extent that those duty bearers tasked with protecting refugee rights are working towards the removal of refugee rights, including the right to freedom of movement, to work, and to apply for permanent residence (in the case of recognised refugees).

Identification and documentation are now the gateway to almost everything, and are the biggest challenge the refugee community in South Africa faces.

While refugees work to meet this challenge, their life is on hold or in limbo. This results in a sense of being persecuted again, in a country that ostensibly has “one of the most progressive system of refugee protection in the world”.

I haven’t even touched on the issues of trauma, gender-based violence, mental health and others for this piece, as it would need a lot more space and time to discuss properly.

It may be wise to remember that all the issues we as South Africans of various races, religions, genders and ages face in our families and within our communities affect asylum seekers and refugees, too.

Rajah is director of Refugee Social Services, a South African non-governmental organisation working to promote refugee rights and develop refugees’ capacity to attain independence and integration into South African society.

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