Legal Advocacy and Equal Rights for Asylum Seekers in Cape Town

6 minute read

The Christianson Fellowship afforded me the opportunity to complete a seven-month internship at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, a nonprofit organization that works with asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants. Working as the advocacy intern, I was part of a team that provided, promoted, and protected equal rights to asylum-seekers and refugees. Scalabrini is located in the Cape Town city center, but collaborates with other organizations throughout the city, such as the University of Cape Town Refugee Rights Clinic (UCT), Cape Town Refugee Centre (CTRC) and the Legal Resource Centre (LRC), and throughout South Africa. As the advocacy intern, I was able to get involved with many aspects and projects, which gave me the opportunity to better understand the complexities of the asylum process and the people in it.

Working as an American in Cape Town was a fun experience. I had already spent three months interning in Cape Town prior to working at Scalabrini, and obviously loved it enough to return, which is a true testament to the welcome, warmth, and acceptance I felt with my respective organizations and the city.

Cape Town is big enough that it attracts many international tourists, students, and volunteers, so organizations like Scalabrini are accustomed to interns from across the globe, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone I met was. Many of my clients were very interested or surprised to hear that I was American; I even got a few marriage proposals once they learned this! I learned to perfect my elevator pitch for clients and Capetonians alike because for some, the idea that I wanted to leave and willingly departed the U.S. to work elicited a “But… why?”

One adjustment, however, was adapting to a different concept of time. The pace at which life and office work moves is much more relaxed and there is less stress and urgency with day-to-day tasks. At work, this meant that clients would come in an hour past their appointments, or not at all. I think there was also a large learning curve, as I had to really learn and understand how the South African government works: procedures, processes, and policies that I wouldn’t have known without really working in the field. My coworkers, however, were really wonderful and were always willing to answer any questions I had.

As our work was responding to the needs of clients and policies of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) – the government department that manages the asylum system - there was no such thing as a “typical day at the office.” When I first began at Scalabrini, I was in charge of managing the newcomers. In July of 2012, the DHA closed the Refugee Reception Office in Cape Town, preventing any new asylum applications from being lodged in the city.

Scalabrini contested the move by taking DHA to court. While the case was in process, I worked to maintain a record of how many people were coming in after being denied access to the office, but I also provided them with information on their rights as an undocumented person in Cape Town. However, in October, the case finished, and though we technically won, the court ruled that it was only because DHA did not take the proper steps in making the decision to close the office and asked they make the decision again.

The team knew there really wasn’t a chance that the office would reopen, which meant we had to contact all of our previous clients to inform them that they had to travel to another city to get their permits or risk deportation. I was in charge of leading these large information sessions for those clients, as well as explaining other technicalities of the decision that would affect them. I also continued to advise new, undocumented clients of this change in the asylum system.

After a few months, my client work extended beyond newcomers and client calls, and I began to handle all client intake for the advocacy team. I advised clients who needed help with sorting out basic issues like lost and expired permits and clients who were unable to extend their documents, and worked on more complicated cases like family joining. Working with my supervisor, Marilize, I was even able to propose, create, and write several templates on new issues for future use by the team. By the end of my internship, I was seeing and assisting every advocacy client, unless his or her case was complicated or a special matter handled by another member of the team.

I also was responsible for Scalabrini’s weekly press review, covering asylum-seeker and refugee issues and news as well as several research projects. My research projects varied in size, from smaller day-to-day data and information collection relevant to our clients, to larger projects on comparative policies on Unaccompanied Minors (UAMs) and developing the beginnings of a policy proposal for post-18 documentation options for these children.

Our work on UAMs and separated children was the beginning of an effort by Scalabrini, UCT, and CTRC to solve a gap in policy and practice on documentation processes and options for children who arrive to South Africa with no parent or guardian or are in the care of someone who is not their legal guardian. There is no current durable solution for these children. I also did research and assembled information that was presented to DHA during its stakeholders consultation regarding the closure of the Refugee Reception Office. This project addressed the concerns of relocating refugee reception offices to border towns and the effect it would have on the socio-economic conditions in small cities that I argued were incapable of handling what would be a massive influx of people.

My achievements at Scalabrini are not the measureable kind. It seemed like we were constantly at a standstill with many issues, but our work is an accomplishment in and of itself. Our goal as the advocacy team was to work to ensure the equal rights of our clients, which is what we did, even if we were not completely satisfied with the outcome. I also view the knowledge and experience I gained as one of my own achievements.

One of my hopes going into the internship was to better understand refugee law and issues. These problems are not exclusive to South Africa, and through my press reviews for the Centre, I was able to understand and learn about refugee issues in Europe, Australia, Syria, and beyond. A second goal of mine was see how the government and advocates perceive and approach these issues. Being able to see the slow grinding gears of bureaucracy, the frustrations of advocates and real-life implications of these policies on my clients was a world away from the fancy meeting rooms and talk between government departments and members of Parliament.

Though I have not yet studied human rights or refugee law in an advanced degree program, I believe that my internship and experience with Scalabrini’s advocacy team has already put me ahead of other students who will enroll without this practical experience. I am grateful to have had support from InterExchange and the Christianson Fellowship, as they gave me the opportunity to return to a place that I love and gain experience in field of work that I have become passionate about.

Marijke By

Marijke volunteered in South Africa with the help of a Christianson Fellowship, from the InterExchange Foundation.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation