Refugees make mistake of knowing their rights (Business Day)

THE past three months have seen a dramatic change in the public perception of this country's victims of xenophobic violence.

From once pathetic victims of violent wrath by SA's poor and disillusioned, refugees upset by the government's poorly planned re-integration policy have now been branded as ungrateful rebels. This is often what happens when you don't live up to your brand name.

The public is quite used to seeing pathetic refugees carrying their worldly belongings on their backs while hiking over some rugged mountain pass to reach a border crossing.

In SA, our perception is more of desperate people scurrying under our northern border fence escaping from a crisis that our government often pretends does not exist.

What we apparently don't want to see are politically aware adults who will not stand idly by and watch their legal rights be trampled on.

Two weeks ago, a group of those people were cast away from their shelter in Johannesburg when asked to sign a paper, which any attorney practised in the law of contract would never allow their client to sign. It stated that refugees and asylum seekers who registered at the camps would lose their rights to social assistance, among other benefits.

Refugees and asylum seekers have the right to access certain social grants. Indeed, many have been benefiting from social relief-of-distress grants since everything they owned, including houses and businesses, were destroyed or stolen in the violence that caused the deaths of 65 people and displaced thousands.

Officials were quick to assure them verbally that this provision did not apply to refugees, but they were still required to sign.

These assurances came from the same department - home affairs - that has done its best to erode any sense of trust in the past 10 years by mismanaging its refugee reception offices and by allowing the constant harassment and arbitrary arrest of the people it is charged with protecting.

But when people started to question the legality of signing the paper, they were not given the opportunity to consult a lawyer. Rather they were herded onto trucks and sent to the Lindela deportation centre. When it became clear that it was illegal to deport refugees, they were released to the side of the highway with no money to go any farther. Those men not lucky enough to
have friends or family with a bakkie were then hauled off to the police station to
spend a week in jail for "allegedly" obstructing traffic.

These frivolous charges are being used to detain people, actually just the men, who would normally be allowed to pay a fine.

In fact, there was not even a mention of bail at their first appearance and prosecutors are assured that the courts are booked up for any new bail applications in the coming weeks.

At least the women and children were provided for by a local shelter, although still a long way away from their husbands and fathers in jail.

In cells, the men were then asked to sign an affidavit relinquishing their refugee status, depriving them of the only protection afforded to them at this point: international protection.

When the affidavits didn't work, they were hauled back to Lindela for more interviews, once again without their lawyers. This is most likely the next attempt by the government to deport these documented refugees and asylum seekers to avoid the protections provided for by Parliament in the law.

And as this was happening, the local response showed the true extent of how far we still have to go toward re-integration and reconciliation. Many described them as "ungrateful" and "unco-operative," without asking why or whether there was a valid reason for doing so.

No one should make the mistake of idealising this group. A few among them tried to capitalise on the situation to make political gains, although the majority were simply stuck at the side of the road with nowhere to go.

But the real crime that they committed was speaking up for themselves and their rights. They did not live up to the expectation that a "grateful" refugee would have been more "co-operative" with a poorly implemented government plan.

All the more considering that the government's reintegration plan is nothing more than vague assurances that it has spoken to the hostile communities and that it is now safe to go back.

This is cold comfort, especially after recent reports that five refugees were murdered when they attempted to return to their homes.

Little wonder then that "these people" are standing up for their rights and dignity in a country that belongs to all who live in it.

Perhaps the first mistake was allowing refugees in the first place to get the feel for how a democratic society works.

11 August 2008
David Cote

Cote heads the strategic litigation unit at Lawyers for Human Rights.