Cape Town Refugee Amendment Act Explained

Teach Yourself: The Refugees Amendment Act Explained

Keep up to date with our #TeachYourself series – condensed articles on planned changes in South African migration law. Our articles and infographics aim to spread awareness on the planned changes in South Africa’s migration landscape, and our standpoint on the issue.


The Refugees Amendment Act

The Refugees Amendment Act, which was signed into law on 14 December 2017, can only be properly implemented once the Draft Regulations are finalized and published in the Government Gazette. At this time, it is still unclear when the Amendment Act might go into force, if at all. If implemented, this Act would spell fundamental changes for asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa. As with any law in South Africa, public involvement is part of the process. The Advocacy Programme at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town has provided the South African government with submissions on the Refugee Amendment Bill and comments on the Draft Regulations to the Refugees Amendment Act. The Refugees Amendment Act is being enacted at a time of great change: the White Paper on International Migration for South Africa will, if implemented, bring about extensive changes to both economic migrants and refugees migrating to South Africa. For example, introducing low-skilled work permits for those from the Southern Africa would hugely relieve the pressure on the asylum system in South Africa. With such changes on the horizon, the drastic changes of the Refugees Amendment Act – which risk infringing on the constitutional rights of asylum seekers and refugees – may not be required.

Removal of the automatic right to work and study for asylum seekers

Under the Refugees Amendment Act, asylum seekers would no longer have the automatic right to work and study. This right would only be ‘endorsed’ on an asylum visa following an assessment process to determine whether the applicant could support themselves in any way (including with UNHCR’s support). If not, they would have the right to work endorsed – but they would need to show proof of employment within two weeks, or risk their employer facing a hefty fine. For those who are studying, the Refugees Amendment Act and Draft Regulations are not completely clear. Proof of studying at a South African education institution will be needed by asylum applicant, implying that the right to study will not be automatically granted.

In our submissions, we raised deep concerns over the changes to asylum seekers’ right to work and study. The Watchenuka court case confirmed asylum seekers’ right to work in South Africa, in that the right to work is interwoven with one’s constitutional right to dignity. The Refugees Amendment Act, it seems, would risk infringing rights to dignity once again. We are concerned that this system, if implemented, will be unworkable, impractical, and will lead to the degradation of asylum seekers’ dignity. What’s more, the UNHCR has confirmed that they are not able to provide shelter to asylum seekers in South Africa – despite the Act envisaging that the UNHCR would do so. Our submissions also warned that employers will be hesitant to provide written undertakings (or risk fines), pushing applicants towards informal or unauthorized employment – which is neither beneficial for the asylum seeker nor the South African economy. The administrative process that will be needed to authorize an asylum seekers’ right to work would add further layers to the asylum system, creating more work for officials working in Home Affairs – who should be focusing their time and resources on processing asylum claims. We believe that, if the Department of Home Affairs is able to adjudicate asylum applications within a reasonable period of time, the need to ‘endorse’ asylum seekers’ right to work would fall away. We recommend that the Department of Home Affairs rather funnel resources towards improving efficient asylum adjudications.

Opening and closing Refugee Reception Offices

Under the Refugees Amendment Act, the Director-General of Home Affairs would be able to establish, and disestablish, as many Refugee Reception Offices as he or she regards as necessary – ‘notwithstanding the provisions of any other law’. He or she would also be able to direct any category of asylum seekers to report to any ‘place specially designated’ when lodging an application for asylum. In our submissions, we raised deep concerns around what an ‘other place specially designated’ might mean. We are especially concerned that it may result in what may essentially be de facto refugee camps or detention centres for certain categories of asylum seekers. Home Affairs has closed several Refugee Reception Offices since 2010, all of which were found unlawful by the courts. The laws with which opening or closing Refugee Reception Offices must comply with is not clear in the Refugees Amendment Act. This is of concern to us – especially considering the recent rulings on RRO closures. This amendment might well be paving the way towards the plans to ultimately construct ‘asylum processing centres’ on the northern borders of South Africa.

Applying for asylum

The Refugees Amendment Act requires an asylum seeker to report to a Refugee Reception Office no later than five days after arriving in South Africa – or they can be excluded from refugee status. Furthermore, those who do not have an ‘asylum transit visa’ will be interviewed by an immigration officer to determine whether they have ‘valid reasons’ for not holding this transit visa. In the daily work of Scalabrini, asylum applicants often report difficulties in entering a Refugee Reception Office and applying for asylum. Five days to apply for asylum is not realistic – and we expressed concern in our submissions that denying someone an application to asylum simply because they apply on the sixth day is not in line with international refugee law. Given the current backlogs and protracted adjudication processes, this provision could create significant burdens for asylum seekers – and extra layers of administration for the Department of Home Affairs.

Under the Refugees Amendment Act asylum seekers will have to declare all existing dependents family upon their first application in order to have them documented in their asylum file. For those fleeing conflicts in stressful conditions, and with limited English, ensuring all family members are on the asylum application is not necessarily simple. In our submissions, we suggested that family members can be joined into an asylum file at a later date, along with proof of their relationship to the applicant.

Abandoning asylum claims

Under the Refugees Amendment Act, an asylum claim will be considered ‘abandoned’ if an asylum seeker does not attend a Refugee Reception Office in the month after the expiry of their asylum permit (unless they have a ‘compelling reason’). In our experience, the expired permit process has been fraught with difficulty for asylum seekers for years and pushes individuals into undocumented statuses. Entering Refugee Reception Offices is no easy task; asylum seekers have to visit Refugee Reception Offices several times before getting documented. For these reasons, many asylum seekers would have their claim deemed ‘abandoned’ – which, in our opinion, places administrative matters over protection and the principle of non-refoulement and is in contradiction to South African case-law which confirms that asylum applications cannot be denied on grounds of delay and that asylum applicants are, even prior to applying, protected by the Refugees Act. Our submissions suggested twelve months given the practical realities as a more realistic period before considering an asylum claim abandoned.

Exclusion from refugee status

If implemented, the Refugees Amendment Act would expand the reasons for which an asylum seeker could be excluded from refugee status. This would include the committing of a Schedule 2 crime, entering illegally into South Africa, or an offence related to fraudulent documentation. It would also include those who are fugitives from justice in countries ‘where the rule of law is upheld by a recognized judiciary’, and those who do not apply for asylum within five days of entering South Africa. These proposed changes do not adhere to international refugee law, which clearly outlines that refugees should not be penalized for irregular entry into South Africa. UNHCR Guidelines further clarify that ‘the proportionality of the gravity of the offence in question should be weighed against the consequences of exclusion for the individual concerned’.

Cessation of refugee status

The Refugees Amendment Act would, if implemented, expand the reasons under which a refugee status could be withdrawn. The Act, read with the Draft Regulations, propose a list of actions that would result in the withdrawal of refugee status – including ‘seeking consular services assistance with documentation.’ In our submissions and comments, we raise concern around the fact that asylum seekers are required, by the Department of Home Affairs, to produce documentation such as marriage certificates – which would require a visit to their consulate, and would risk them having their status withdrawn. The Act would allow the Minister of Home Affairs to announce a cessation upon an entire category of refugees (or an individual), which we highlight would bypass the checks and balances currently attached to cessations.

Changes to the Refugee Appeal Board

The fact that the Refugee Appeal Board is severely over-stretched and under-resourced is well documented, and has resulted in asylum seekers waiting for several years for hearings and outcomes. The Refugees Amendment Act would create the Refugee Appeals Authority, which would allow for one member to take a decision (rather than the current quorum) and for more flexible appointments. Our submissions agreed with some of the proposed improvements to the appeals procedure, and suggested an amnesty project to allow the Refugee Appeal Board to clear the huge backlog that they currently face.

Permanent residency

The Refugees Amendment Act would lengthen the amount of time a refugee has resided in the country before being allowed to apply for certification to apply for permanent residence from the current five years to ten years. The UNHCR recommend that the period of time before recognizing a permanent status should be five years. In our comments, we recommended that the time period remain at five years, especially considering the protracted determination process which means many remain on asylum temporary permits for many years, in order to qualify for application to permanent residency.

*Our overall concerns with the Refugees Amendment Act are that it introduces a range of new exclusions from protection and extra procedures for officials to conduct that are unrelated to refugee protection. As the major problem with the Refugees Act has been implementation, we do not foresee these changes having a positive impact on efficiency or protection outcomes.

Scalabrini Centre Cape Town Refugee Amendment Act Explained Teach Yourself


Laurence: Prosecutor, Cleaner and Volunteer through Employment Access Programme

We hear from Laurence, a prosecutor from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who has worked as a cleaner, cook and volunteer here in South Africa. Now, with the assistance of the Employment Access Programme, she is rising through the ranks, and reconnecting with her passion.

Fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo

Laurence is a strong woman. In DRC, she was driven to become a prosecutor because women “didn’t have a say in the family and in society.” Laurence explains that it was her goal “to target all men who abuse women”. It was ultimately also this fire and passion that forced her to leave. When Laurence sentenced one particularly powerful man to prison, she began receiving death threats. “In Congo, when someone promises to rape and kill you, you better take that threat seriously. You have to run for your life.” Laurence fled to another city in DRC. There, she was warned that she was still not safe – and so she started her journey to South Africa.

Solidarity with South Africa

Laurence remembers the way Congolese people had helped South Africans during apartheid. “We prayed for South Africa from afar. We could feel the pain of people in South Africa. Growing up, I thought we are one with South African people.” This bond and sense of solidarity with South Africa encouraged her to seek asylum here. The reality of South Africa was, however, rather different to what she had expected.
Faced with a new country and a new language, Laurence found work as a cleaner and then a pizza chef. She worked these jobs for nearly a decade. Deeply frustrated that she could not use her legal skills, Laurence quit her jobs and started to volunteer at a primary school. She has worked her way up and is now vice chairperson of the school board.

Connecting to opportunities

Laurence sought assistance at the Employment Access Programme, which connects documented clients to job opportunities through skill training and professional development.

Here, Laurence’s legal qualifications were submitted to the South Africa Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and, whilst awaiting the outcome, she was connected to opportunities in French-English translation – including at a legal conference hosted by the Bertha Foundation. Finally, Laurence is starting to re-grow connections into the legal world. She sees her experience as a refugee as a key aspect to her upcoming opportunities.

A dream of home

Once the violence has subsided, Laurence hopes to return home to DRC. She’d like to resume her role of prosecutor. For other people in a similar situation, Laurence says: “I understand the pressures of everyday life, but it is important to follow your dreams and not only concentrate on working for money, because sometimes we have to make sacrifices in our life to reach our goals”.

Cape Town Stella Client Story

Stella: Lessons of Strength and Independence From Lawrence House

<br?Stella, 21, arrived in South Africa in 2008 after migrating from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with her uncle. After adjusting to life in Cape Town, Stella was ready to resume her education; she and her uncle looked to Lawrence house, a child and youth care center registered with the Department of Social Development, for support. Lawrence house specializes in the care and protection of unaccompanied foreign minors and refugee children, as well as children who have experienced trauma.</br?

A Family Reunion

The transition from living with her uncle to moving into Lawrence house was eased by the fact that two of her brothers (one older, one younger), were already there. Stella had been disconnected from her brothers for almost two years. Eager to pick up where they left off, Stella believes that the time they spent apart made their relationship stronger.

Stella describes having positive, and even familial relationships with other children in the house. She believes that their similar backgrounds prevented feelings of isolation, and allowed themselves to better relate to one another. “Half of us came from the same place, from the DRC, some Angolans, so I didn’t feel insecure of my background; we had the same struggles, same challenges,” she says.

Developing Skills and Meaningful Relationships

Lawrence House invests in the personal development of its children. Growing up, Stella regularly attended dance classes, and the program facilitated a multitude of other activities like karate, cooking classes, weekend picnics, trips to the movies, in addition to providing emotional support resources like counseling and therapy. “Every week, we had something to do,” Stella reminisces. “We did not watch TV on a regular basis because there were so many other things taking place at the house, good activities.”

Leadership and staff at Lawrence house played a crucial role in shaping Stella’s experience, and she describes the depth and significance of these relationships fondly. “I bonded with Auntie K and Uncle Jeff the most. They taught me that life is about challenges, and that overcoming challenge is what gives you strength. They also provided comfort for me when I was missing my family.”

They taught me that life is about challenges, and that overcoming challenge is what gives you strength. They also provided comfort for me when I was missing my family.”

Pursuing a Passion for Fashion

In addition to emotional support, staff at Lawrence House assist youth to pursue fields of work and study that are suitable for their skills and interests. The manager of Lawrence house, known to Stella as Aunt Gulia, guided her through the process of applying to university. “She explained what certain things were, helped me with processing papers- they don’t let you leave Lawrence house without having something to do. Even if it’s not university, they will help you find a short-term job and get on your feet before letting you go,” says Stella.

Stella is currently a textile engineering student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. She recalls growing up with a passion for clothing design, and feels challenged and fulfilled by her studies. “My courses come along with a lot of theories. It isn’t just about drawing designs; there’s a lot more to the field, and I have learned so much.”

Stella plans to finish university this year, and her long-term goal is to work until she can afford to bring the rest of her family from the DRC to South Africa. “In terms of my decisions and choices, I can say that I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without Lawrence house. I’m a stronger person because of my experience there. I always think back to the lessons staff members gave me. Before, I wasn’t as strong as I am now, but I can make decisions that I’m sure will work in my way,” she reflects.

“In terms of my decisions and choices, I can say that I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without Lawrence house. I’m a stronger person because of my experience there.

Cape Town Vincent Client Story

Vincent: Opening your mind to others through UNITE

Nineteen-year-old Vincent is set to complete twelfth grade in a few months. Reflecting back on his time at school, he credits UNITE for much of the person he is today.

The attraction to UNITE

UNITE, Scalabrini’s youth program, explores issues of identity, integration and diversity with young people. Working collaboratively from within the South African secondary education system, UNITE provides a unique extra-curricular curriculum that promotes activism and critical thought.

Vincent first learnt about UNITE from a school announcement. “I thought I would check it out as it sounded interesting. The facilitator explained that the programme would help you to become the best version of yourself. What attracted me was that the main focus of the programme was unity, diversity, identity. I thought this program can build a character in me that I will need forever.” Vincent signed up immediately. Three years later, he continues to be an active member of UNITE’s Inter Club Council (ICC).

Each school has a UNITE Club which is led by peer elected ICC members. ICC members attend themed workshops at the Scalabrini Centre in preparation to lead discussions at their schools UNITE Club.

Challenging perspectives on LGBTIQ

UNITE has exposed Vincent to topics that have challenged his perspectives. One tangible change is his attitude towards LGBTIQ issues. “I used to see people in the LGBTIQ category as people who were inhumane or beasts. I was telling myself that you have to live life a certain way; in the way you are expected to live. The discussions we had in UNITE made me question my perspective and challenged my way of thinking. It made me more accepting of how others live. I no longer judge a person by how they feel, what they believe in or on their walk in life. Instead, I now look at them for the person they are. This would have never happened without this program. It has been absolutely life changing”.

Emotional support and safe spaces

UNITE is not only about developing perspectives; it crafts a unique, safe and intimate space for the participants. “I’ve never felt as free as I do at UNITE. It’s an very safe environment,” Vincent describes. He recalls a reflection session held at a UNITE camp in 2016 and the emotion that filled the room as people started to share past experiences. “They were in tears. This is not just a program that builds and develops us; it also counsels us and supports us.”

“They were in tears. This is not just a program that builds and develops us; it also counsels us and supports us.”

Vincent’s experience with UNITE changed his mind set significantly. Perhaps more importantly, it is youth like Vincent who will invoke long term change in attitudes towards others in South Africa. Indeed, this fits in with UNITE’s wider goal: to work towards a society that is inclusive and accepting of others regardless of their race, nationality, religion, gender or sexuality.

Cape Town Joint Press Release Home Affairs to Discontinue Birth Certificates for Foreign Children

Joint Press Release: Home Affairs To Discontinue Birth Certificates For Foreign Children


Centre for Child Law, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, the UCT
Refugee Law Clinic

For immediate release – 14 November 2018

The Department of Home Affairs has published its proposed new regulations to the Births and Deaths
Registration Act and is calling for the discontinuation of the issuing of birth certificates to foreign

Where previously all children were issued with birth certificates, as is required by the Constitution and international law on children’s rights, the new regulations propose that foreign children be issued with a mere “confirmation of birth” which is “not a birth certificate”, according to the new form.

This proposal is problematic for various reasons:

1. Every child has the right to a birth certificate;

2. In terms of international law, it is the responsibility of the country of birth to issue a birth
certificate, regardless of whether citizenship is also granted or not;

3. It violates the child’s right to a name and a nationality in terms of section 28 of the Constitution
and various international law instruments;

4. It amounts to unfair discrimination on a prohibited ground (ethnic origin and birth) listed in the
equality clause (Sec 9) of the Constitution.

The draft regulation requires children to present their “confirmation of birth” to their embassy in order to obtain a birth certificate from their country of nationality. This is particularly harmful to:

1. Refugee and asylum seeker children, because they cannot approach their embassies, which would jeopardise their protection in South Africa;

2. Orphaned and abandoned children who cannot prove their nationalities because their parents
are absent;

3. Stateless children who do not have a country of nationality.

This proposed amendment comes in the wake of criticism from the UN Committee on the Rights ofthe Child, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the UN Human Rights council on South Africa’s violations of international law on the child’s right to birth registration and a legal identity.

The UNCRC, in particular, has recommended that South Africa “review and amend all legislation and
regulations relevant to birth registration and nationality to ensure their full conformity with the
Convention, including through the removal of requirements that may have punitive or discriminatory
impacts on certain groups of children.” Instead of implementing this recommendation, the Department
is lowering the standard by removing birth registration for foreign children entirely.

Without a birth certificate children face immense barriers to basic services and human rights such as
education, health and social services. The birth certificate also allows stateless children to apply for the safeguards which give them citizenship where they have no other citizenship.
The Constitution requires us to consider the best interests of the child to be paramount in all matters concerning the child (Section 28). Our courts have consistently found that it is in the best interest of the child to have a birth certificate and access to a nationality.

We urge the Department of Home Affairs not to pursue this amendment.

We further urge all stakeholders to submit their comments on this important issue to Tsietsi
Sebelemetja ( and Moses Malakate (
by Friday, 16 November 2018.

For comment contact:

 Lawyers for Human Rights – Liesl Muller at and 011 339 1960
 Centre for Child Law – Anjuli Maistry at and 012 420 4502
 The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town – Lotte Manicom at and 021 465
 The UCT Refugee Law Clinic – Dr. Fatima Khan at and 021 650 5581

Zam Zam: Empowering Women’s Platform With Education

Zam Zam, an active member of Scalabrini’s Women’s Platform, has found her calling as an advocate for integration. Her leadership skills, coupled with a strong sense of identity, have served as an impactful combination.

Journey to South Africa

Political instability drove Zam Zam Hirsi out of her home in Somalia and into a Kenyan refugee camp, where she spent her much of her childhood and early adolescence. After a period of sustained peace in Somalia, Zam Zam returned home in 2002, hopeful to resume the life she once knew. Shortly after her arrival, however, the political instability that drove her away resumed. Equipped with enough money for only one of them to escape, her mother insisted she go.

Zam Zam sought refuge back in Kenya, but was turned away at the border and threatened with arrest. After a long and dangerous journey, she arrived in South Africa in 2003. At the time, the process of seeking official refugee status was considerably different than it is today. “Things were not so bad then,” she begins. “Refugees were few and home affairs was an easy process, so I got refugee status very quickly.”

Getting Right to Work

Shortly after her arrival, Zam Zam served as a translator and facilitator for other refugee women seeking stability. She describes her first experience advocating on behalf of a group of widowed women. “I went with them to the cemetery, undertakers, and set up meetings with UCT between these very traumatized women who had to go to counseling. UCT saw that I was the only facilitator and I ended up seeing that these women needed a voice. I started to think, this is where I belong.”

I started to think, this is where I belong.”

Zam Zam was then introduced to Scalabrini, where she began as a member of the Women’s Platform in 2008. She became one of the group leaders among the women’s leadership program, and found fulfillment in this role because it allowed her to meet and connect with other refugee women. Zam Zam went on to help Scalabrini establish credibility within her community. “They played a big role in fighting xenophobia in 2008, and because I am in the center of the refugee community, I helped Scalabrini develop a reputation of trust.”

Impactful Education

Today, Zam Zam leads integration workshops for members of the Women’s Platform. She advocates for the importance of active community involvement. Following her own advice, she is the first non-South African woman to be part of the Community Policing Forum where she lives. “In my area, there are no Somalis. I spoke for the foreign, the Somali shop owners. Sometimes in meetings, the police would blame Somalis, so I represented the good business owners and non-South Africans. I am a spokesperson not just for Somalis, but for the whole community.”

Zam Zam believes the future of integration lies in educating young women. “I only have one vision, and that is to work for my community, and also to achieve more by educating young girls and women, empowering them with information. If you give money today, the money might end next week. But with information, they can empower themselves…I see myself working more and more until it’s the new norm that women can be active in the community.”

“In my area, there are no Somalis. I spoke for the foreign, the Somali shop owners. Sometimes in meetings, the police would blame Somalis, so I represented the good business owners and non-South Africans. I am a spokesperson not just for Somalis, but for the whole community.”

Cape Town Luc Client Stories

Luc: From student to teacher at The English School

We meet Luc, who went from speaking minimal English to being an assistant teacher at Scalabrini’s English School.

The importance of the English School for integration

One of the greatest barriers people meet when coming to South Africa is that of language. Without adequate understanding of South African languages, it becomes difficult to find employment, housing and medical care. Learning languages is the first step to surviving and integrating in South Africa, which is why Scalabrini’s English School serves a crucial role.

The English School at Scalabrini has developed a specialised curriculum specifically for migrants and refugees in a South African context.

Luc’s journey to South Africa

Luc, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was sent to South Africa by his family who wanted him to study further. However, once in Cape Town, the situation back home took an unexpected turn. “My family was attacked and robbed by unknown armed men, my father was fatally shot,” explains Luc. Some people might come to South Africa as migrants, but are thrown into a position of applying for asylum when their home is no longer safe.

Becoming a teacher

Luc’s neighbor connected him to the English School at Scalabrini. He spoke barely any English, and joined the Beginners Course. Luc excelled at the course, passing exams with flying colours. “I came back to do more but I had completed all the classes’. Instead, the English School at Scalabrini suggested he become a teaching assistant. “I didn’t believe in myself and thought it was a miracle,” say Luc. “It was a miracle! I told my mom about it and she didn’t believe it.”

“I didn’t believe in myself and thought it was a miracle, it was a miracle! I told my mom about it and she didn’t believe it.”

Luc’s success is, in part, thanks to his interest in the language. “To improve your English you have to speak, listen to English lessons, songs and newspapers and watch international channels that talk about the world.”

Ultimately Luc would like to study at the University of Cape Town. For now it’s not an option. “I’m currently working small jobs – fixing small things, telephone, mending electronics” – which, he explains, is not nearly enough to cover university fees.

Luc explains that he was different before the course. “I was shy. Scalabrini and English school is my foundation. Even if I go back to my country one day, it will stay with me.”

Luc’s journey to South Africa was also featured in the book In My Shoes, a collection of English School students’ stories.

“I was shy. Scalabrini and English school is my foundation. Even if I go back to my country one day, it will stay with me.”

Cape Town Marie Client Story

Marie: Fighting for papers with Advocacy

Marie*, 64, and her grand-daughter Bibi*, 12, survived an extremely traumatic journey to South Africa. Slowly, the pair are starting to rebuild their lives in Cape Town – with documentation assistance from the Advocacy Programme.

A life left behind

“I used to be beautiful and wear jewels. I used to walk normally”. Sitting in her room in Brookyln, Cape Town, Marie reflects on a life she left behind in Beni – an area in the Democratic Republic of Congo afflicted by heavy conflict. “Last year, we were on a bus in the forest, and the rebels stopped us and caught us. Me and my grand-daughter, Bibi, were forced into one group by the rebels. My husband and my daughter – Bibi’s mother – were put in another group. I have not seen them since.”

Marie was raped by the rebel soldiers, which resulted in her being disabled. Even now, Marie moves around the house with crutches, and can only move outside using a wheelchair. Marie and Bibi managed to escape to a village where a clinic assisted then. “The clinic told us it was not safe to stay there. We were told to flee,” she recalls. The two of them set off on a long, arduous journey to South Africa.

“Last year, we were on a bus in the forest, and the rebels stopped us and caught us. Me and my grand-daughter, Bibi, were forced into one group by the rebels. My husband and my daughter – Bibi’s mother – were put in another group. I have not seen them since.”

Barriers to documentation

“When we arrived in Cape Town, it was difficult for us because we did not have anything or know anyone or anything,” Marie explains. She was becoming sicker, and the two of them were without documentation or housing. Although Marie and Bibi had a strong asylum claim, they could not apply for asylum in Cape Town. The Cape Town Refugee Reception Office remains closed to new asylum applications – despite a court order ruling that the office be reopened. This is part of an ongoing legal case.

Due to Marie’s disability, she was unable to apply for asylum elsewhere in South Africa – and was also unable to apply in Cape Town. “We did not have papers. It was like we were not even in this country,” explains Bibi, who was not able to enroll in school.

Small steps forward

Marie and Bibi visited Scalabrini’s Advocacy Programme. Recognizing the severity of the case, the Advocacy team negotiated with officials of the Department of Home Affairs. In a miracle collaboration, Marie and Bibi’s case was considered so strong that they were permitted to apply for asylum Cape Town Refugee Reception Office. “It was a miracle for us,” explains Marie. “We were told that Home Affairs will never give us papers here. But we went there with members of Scalabrini and Home Affairs agreed to assist us. Now we have a paper, everything has changed. We are brave now.”

Although documented, there are many barriers to overcome for Marie and her young grandchild. Bibi is attending English courses at a local library until she is able to enroll in school. They live day-to-day in a small single room, and depend on the goodwill of others. Worryingly, there is still no news from Marie’s husband and daughter, who were last seen when the rebels abducted them in the forest in Congo. Marie is desperately trying to find them on social networks. “I used to cry … but now I just pray, all night.”

“We were told that Home Affairs will never give us papers here. But we went there with members of Scalabrini and Home Affairs agreed to assist us. Now we have a paper, everything has changed. We are brave now.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities