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November 1, 2011

What We’re Reading: “No Place To Go But Up”

by Asylum Access

For this first submission in a continuing “What We’re Reading” segment, Asylum Access college intern, Kuniko Madden, was asked to review a timely publication that furthers the discussion of refugee rights.

Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) has published three reports in a year-long study focusing on urban refugees. The most recent, “No Place To Go But Up,” highlights issues faced by urban refugees in Johannesburg, South Africa. I found this report relevant to the discussion of refugees’ right to work and accessible to people with all levels of awareness about refugee rights.  The report also uses sidebars that go into more detail or define terms, which is great for a newer audience. The word “refugee” makes many people picture refugee camps. However, urban refugees are increasingly more common – about half of the world’s 16 million refugees – and have their own special set of issues that must be addressed, including discrimination, xenophobia, and access to lawful employment. Because of this, I appreciated the report’s explanation of how systematic discrimination against refugees could still occur in a country that is signatory to international human rights conventions, including the 1951 Refugee Convention. Although South Africa formally guarantees rights to all people living in South Africa regardless of citizenship, these policies often do not achieve implementation, or are eclipsed by social discrimination. Another valuable point I learned from WRC’s report is that in South Africa, both an unstable legal structure and social vulnerability restrict refugees’ access to status and rights. The South African Department of Home Affairs does not see itself as agency intended to help the progress of refugees, but simply the “registrant of ‘genuine’ status determination claims” and is often accused of long delays, unexplained rejections and even bribery. UNHCR is viewed as being opaque and ineffective. In addition, public institutions and service providers often refuse to help refugees despite legal documents due to overcrowding. As far as social vulnerability, I learned that refugees are more susceptible to crime, violence and xenophobia, often at the hands of the police and government officials. One major barrier to employment is that few migrants are able to find formal wage employers who accept their legal papers. Whether employers are acting out of xenophobia or misunderstanding of the law, the effect is to force refugees to work informally as a survival strategy. Although self employment is permitted, it can be prohibitively expensive. The report offers recommendations for legal and policy strategies to address difficulties faced by refugees. The includes reorienting the DHA to a client-centered model, creating a database of skilled laborers in the refugee/asylum seeker community, strengthening coordination with stakeholders, and expanding the pool of advocacy and service providers. The recommendations are abundant and sensible and I look forward to following up on how they are implemented. As a final note, I was interested that the report made an effort to differentiate between distinct refugee groups by nation of origin, rather than referring to the refugee population as a unit. This proved to be an important distinction as refugees of various nationalities often see themselves as separate groups and in this instance faced issues specific to their population. By understanding the makeup of the general population, it is possible to better tailor advocacy and solutions. “No Place to Go But Up” reaffirms the importance of documenting and understanding the hurdles faced by urban refugees so they may be properly addressed. I hope that more legal and policy work will be done to put the report’s recommendations into workable models, particularly when it comes to access to lawful employment.

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