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VII. The Role of UNHCR

UNHCR has been active in South Africa for over a decade, following the “Basic Agreement” on the role of the agency in the country, signed by UNHCR and the South African government in 1993. Since then, South Africa has acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention. As elsewhere, the agency has identified voluntary repatriation, local integration, and resettlement to another country as “durable solutions” to the problems of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa, including those based in urban areas.249

Unlike many other African countries (where UNHCR, under its mandate, takes a leading role in the absence of a national framework to meet obligations to protect refugees250), the South African government has a sufficient legal framework to manage its own refugee and asylum system.251 Recognizing, however, that the capacity of South Africa’s refugee and asylum system is severely lacking in many respects, UNHCR directs the bulk of its activities toward building capacity within government (as well as among its implementation partners, service-providing NGOs). The agency particularly focuses on improving equipment and human resources, including training and “professionalisation” of refugee and asylum services.252 As a follow-up to the first Backlog Project of 2000-2001,253 UNHCR has further assisted DHA by providing it with additional computers to manage the backlog of asylum applications yet to be finalized. The UNHCR began implementing a training program for approximately two hundred persons, including immigration officers, law graduates and researchers from all areas of the country on recognizing refugees, to avoid problems of unlawful and arbitrary detention and refoulement to tackle the backlog of cases.254 As noted earlier, the agency believes that cases of refoulement, as well as the detention of refugees and asylum seekers at Lindela, are largely a consequence of ignorance and lack of training rather than deliberate policy.255 The net effect of UNHCR’s previous training programs, however, is unclear, as there has been no post-training evaluation.

UNHCR also seeks to provide refugees and asylum seekers access to services and public relief, and to promote the local integration of refugees into South African society. On a limited scale, therefore, the agency provides short term, emergency assistance to some refugees and asylum seekers, including assistance to new arrivals for a maximum of six months.

The bulk of UNHCR’s financial assistance for refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa is channeled through a few key NGOs—the agency’s implementing partners. In Johannesburg these are Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) for service provision and, at the time of writing, the Wits Law Clinic for legal protection.256 Thus education for children, vocational skills courses, accommodation, and legal advice are some of the services to which refugees and asylum seekers with documents do have access.

While this is an important contribution towards the welfare of refugees and asylum seekers, many NGOs with whom Human Rights Watch spoke believe that UNHCR’s funding of services is insufficient to meet the overwhelming need, particularly since nearly all refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa live in costly urban areas such as Johannesburg.257 It would appear that certain restrictions formulated by UNHCR on access to assistance, particularly the six-month time limit, do not take into account the amount of time it takes to gain access to the refugee reception office and acquire proper documents, as well as the inability of refugees to benefit fully from the rights to which they are entitled. Therefore, emergency funding for accommodation is in practice limited to a maximum of three months for new arrivals, to benefit the largest number of those in need. Thereafter, the majority of asylum seekers must fend for themselves. Refugees told Human Rights Watch that UNHCR’s assistance was insufficient; they believed that the role of the agency was “to assist refugees and asylum seekers as a humanitarian organization.”258 UNHCR’s 2005 Global Appeal report on South Africa says:

Funding constraints oblige UNHCR to apply extremely restrictive criteria to ensure that assistance is provided only to those in greatest need. As a consequence, many vulnerable refugees who would in the past have qualified for assistance now remain without support. This problem is compounded by the increasing impact of HIV/AIDS on refugees and asylum-seekers, further stretching the capacity of UNHCR and its partners to provide adequate assistance.259

UNHCR has recognized some problems inherent to refugee status determination procedures in South Africa. According to the UN agency, the key concerns are how quickly determinations are made, and how the most vulnerable cases are addressed. In an attempt to assist asylum seekers in gaining access to refugee reception offices, UNHCR has helped to expedite asylum applications where medical treatment is urgently required.260 However, given the once again increasing backlog and continual delays, UNHCR will need to do more in concert with DHA (such as further trainings, for example) if the refugee status determination process is to become part of a system of effective protection in South Africa. UNHCR has also rightly recommended to DHA that it employ more staff to increase effectiveness and efficiency in refugee reception offices.

UNHCR also plays an advocacy role, engaging in awareness-raising campaigns through which it works to inform relevant government departments of their roles and responsibilities in relation to refugees and asylum seekers. For example, a manual on the rights of the refugee child, geared toward social workers, was launched in March 2004.261 The manual discusses international and domestic laws pertaining to the rights of foreign children (including refugees and asylum seekers) as well as the various issues that arise specific to this particularly vulnerable group, and then presents the most appropriate ways for social workers to assist them. UNHCR envisages that, through such campaigns, the various South African government departments addressing welfare issues will begin to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers, including children, are included in accessing the services to which they are entitled.262

During 2004-2005, UNHCR is also assisting with voluntary repatriation of Angolan, Congolese and Rwandan refugees from South Africa and with the processing of a limited number of emergency resettlement cases from South Africa to third countries.

A number of refugees and asylum seekers interviewed by Human Rights Watch were aware of the presence of UNHCR in South Africa, but were not sure where the agency’s offices were located and were unclear about the limited service-provision role of the agency in the country. The agency has only one office in the whole of the country, the regional office for the Southern Africa region, located in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa. It maintains a staff of thirty.263 As one refugee observed, “I know they [UNHCR] help people, but it is difficult to find them.”264

[249] Groot in Landau (ed.), op. cit., p. 41.

[250] In Kenya, for example, UNHCR manages the refugee status determination procedures. See Human Rights Watch, Hidden in Plain View: Refugees Living without Protection in Kampala and Nairobi (New York: Human Rights Watch), 2002.

[251] Human Rights Watch interview, Mr Mbilinyi, UNHCR, Pretoria, op. cit.

[252] Human Rights Watch interview, Mr Mbilinyi, UNHCR, Pretoria, op. cit.

[253] The project is aimed at reducing the tens of thousands of asylum applications then pending—many for years—in the system. UNHCR believes that many of the “new” cases are in fact individuals who had merely recycled back into South Africa.

[254] UNHCR Press Release, UN Agency Trains More South Africans in Refugee Registration, September 27, 2005 at HTTp://

[255] Human Rights Watch interview, Mr Mbilinyi, UNHCR, Pretoria, op. cit.

[256] Human Rights Watch was informed by the Wits Law Clinic that, as of 2006, UNHCR funding for refugee and asylum seeker legal services would be directed to Lawyers for Human Rights rather than the Wits Law Clinic. Human Rights Watch interview, Wits Law Clinic, Johannesburg, February 22, 2005.

[257] Human Rights Watch interview, JRS, Johannesburg, August 17, 2004.

[258] Human Rights Watch interview, refugees, Johannesburg, July 9, 2004.

[259] UNHCR Global Report 2005, p. 191.

[260] Human Rights Watch interview, Wits Law Clinic, Johannesburg, September 8, 2004.

[261] JRS, LHR, UNHCR and NCRA, Working with Foreign Children: A Social Worker’s Guide. 2003.

[262] Groot, in Landau (ed.), op. cit., p. 41.

[263] UNHCR, South Africa country profile, op. cit.

[264] Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Johannesburg, September 1, 2004.

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