UNHCR and UCT launch the Cape Town Programme in International Refuge Law

By | 26 November 2014

Cape Town, 18 November 2014 – South Africa and MARATANE REFUGEE CAMP, Mozambique, 18 November 2014 – Dozens of smiling and screaming children run up to the gate of the only kindergarten in Maratane refugee camp in northern Mozambique to greet the visitors. “Bondia!” they shout grabbing the hands of the guests until their teachers manage to corrale back to their classrooms for their daily siestas. The teachers, Said Jean Claude Assani aged 34 year and, Wiio Wilondga Mulumba aged 32 fled their home towns in South Kivu, due to the war and unrest, each of them having a different horror story to tell about their flight.

Cape Town November 2014 107But even of more concern to them, is that they are still waiting for their refugee status to be granted by the government officials. Both of them have had asylum-seekers status for more than four years. “We even know of some in camp who have been waiting for status for 10 years,” they say.

“It was not our choice to be a refugee, but we aren’t really considered refugees here in Mozambique. We are seen to be people who are trying to cheat the system. Decisions should be taken on our cases within two or maybe six months. We don’t know why it is taking so long. Imagine, I defended my application on 25 November 2012, I don’t have a result yet. I don’t know who to turn to for help I don’t know who to go to push for an answer,” says Assani.

“We know we are lucky in Mozambique that the government gives us rights, but we are walking around with an A4 size paper as a document. Recognized refugees have ID cards and it is much easier for them. We can be stopped by police who call us “A4,” adds Mulumba

With governments in Southern Africa increasingly concerned about national security, trafficking, human smuggling and abuses of the asylum system, border controls are become stricter. Identifying people in need of international protection is difficult due to the severe capacity constraints faced by the national asylum systems. While nearly all countries in Southern Africa are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 OAU Convention, most have done so with reservations regarding freedom of movement and access to employment. With the exception of Angola and South Africa, most of them have encampment policies that restrict freedom of movement and limit possibilities for self-reliance. Populations in the camps have lived there for decades finding it difficult to envision a better future.

With this in mind, on 18 November 2014, UNHCR and the University of Cape Town launched the inaugural session of the Cape Town Programme in International Refugee Law. This Programme seeks to improve the protection of refugees and asylum seekers in Southern Africa by fostering constructive dialogue between policymakers, academics and civil society.

Senior government officials from Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe are attending the four day programme where they are being encouraged to explore the legal and policy changes required to bring the region closer to international standards of refugee protection.

With this training, UNHCR hopes to encourage governments to look at refugees from the point of view of the positive contributions they can make to their new host communities and with a view to ensuring their human rights are respected.

“UNHCR provides training to government officials all the time, but what is unique about this programme is that we are focusing on the specific challenges of refuge protection in Africa and how to strengthen refugee protection as provided for in the various refugee conventions, “ said UNHCR’s Regional Representative for Southern Africa, Clementine Nkweta-Salami.

The 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa which came into force 40 years ago is being reviewed in depth, along with the protection regime enshrined in 1981 OAU African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and on regional traditions and values concerning the protection and assistance to others.

South Africa’s Deputy Minister from Home Affairs Ms. Fatima Chohan in her official opening addressed said. “Our law gives refugees rights, and this is not the case globally. I personally was struck by first visit to one of our refugee reception offices in 2011. I was impacted emotionally by the stories shared with me by the refugees and their daily struggles. Refugee law is extremely important but in practice it is another ball game altogether. Hosting refugees is not easy on any country.”

“We are excited to be partnering with UNHCR on this programme and to have such distinguished African scholars and experts present to discuss this important issue of our time with government officials who can make an impact on improving the rights of refugees,” states Fatima Khan, Director of the Refugee Rights Programme at the University of Cape Town.

Back in Maratane camp, the teachers request UNHCR staff to ask the officials to resolve this documentation issue. “We think it is great that they are meeting to discuss international refugee rights and obligations but we hope that any decisions taken in Cape Town are implemented in the refugee camps. If not then it doesn’t help us.”

Southern Africa currently hosts some 415,000 refugees and asylum seekers mostly originating from the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa.