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English teacher Jean de Dieu Kaynamura teaches a class of adults in Pretoria, South Africa, May 17, 2011. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Washington, D.C.) July 21, 2011 — Despite heightened international awareness of the issues facing refugees in urban areas, serious barriers remain for organizations such as Jesuit Refugee Service seeking to help such refugees to meet their daily needs and to achieve long-term solutions. 

Although all urban refugees share the same needs for legal protection, personal security, psychological and social support and, of course, shelter, food, medical care and education, the access to such assistance varies widely due to the attitudes of host governments and the availability of local resources. 

In the current issue of The Refugee Voice we speak with refugees at the northern and southern ends of the African continent to learn how very different circumstances have led JRS to take different approaches to meeting their needs. This article focuses on South Africa.

Refugees are drawn to South Africa largely due to its reputation as Africa’s most successful economy. 

"South Africa has the largest economy in Africa, and that means …. refugees perceive that they have the best chance of survival, that they are most likely to be looked after in some way. It doesn’t always happen that way, but this is often the perception," said JRS Regional Director David Holdcroft, S.J.

"At the moment there are about 50,000 registered refugees in South Africa, and about 250,000 people who are asylum-seekers awaiting refugee determination. There are probably many, many more people, particularly from Zimbabwe, who have come as a result of starvation and the collapse of the economy there and they will never get refugee status under present international law, but JRS has chosen to treat the vast majority of these as if they were refugees; we regard it as a forced migration. So it’s a huge population of forced migrants in South Africa," he said.

There are no refugee camps in South Africa, and South African law stipulates that refugees should, at least in principle, have access to employment as well as to basic services such as schools and hospitals. Those fortunate enough to get legal refugee status will even be allowed to stay and become a permanent part of South African society. Given this environment, JRS' work on behalf of refugees in South Africa centers around helping refugees obtain access to the benefits that are theoretically available to them, but which are often difficult to obtain. 

JRS operates programs in South Africa’s two major cities, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Since refugees in these cities have the legal right to work, JRS helps them to find employment through assessment, skills training, and small business grants. 

Stephanie, a refugee from DRC, told us of her journey to self-reliance: "The struggle that we went through [at the beginning] was very hard. We were working as volunteers … and our children were in creches [daycare centers], but … the [daycare] fees were very high. Then we …asked, 'Why can’t we open one for refugees?'"

After taking classes with JRS and receiving a small business grant, Stephanie opened her own daycare center. "We found ourselves with a huge demand. We care for 200 children now. Now we are 15 women in this business. We no longer have to receive help from JRS because we are self-reliant.

Although access to services such as education and healthcare is legally available to refugees, institutions often refuse to accept refugees due to ignorance of the law or the inability of refugees to provide acceptable documentation. In these circumstances, JRS works to educate hospital and school administrators and employers about their obligations, and to make sure that refugees get the essential care to which they are entitled. 

"When refugees go to the hospital and they have an asylum document, they find that the hospital will deny them …and will tell them that 'you must have a South African bar-coded ID,'" said JRS Advocacy officer Jeanette Lesisa. JRS works to inform such hospitals of the Department of Health policy requiring acceptance of refugee documentation.

Refugees in Pretoria and Johannesburg face similar problems in obtaining access to education for their children. Schools often refuse to accept refugee documents as evidence of eligibility. Furthermore the cost of schooling is well beyond the reach of many refugees.

JRS responds by negotiating waivers or reductions of school fees for refugee children. "We help them with stationery and uniforms, and we pay fees for them. Currently we are supporting 800 students in Johannesburg and close to 700 in Pretoria, said JRS social worker Sehorane Lehlomela. "Sometimes the schools don’t recognize their asylum seeker or refugee papers, so we negotiate with the school to accept that. The response of the refugees makes this effort well worthwhile."

"If you are not a refugee," says refugee and mother Esther Itela, "you can’t understand how it feels! Having children who can attend school is like hope coming back, and JRS is giving us that hope."

"Our future is our children," she adds. "We ran from our country, from a war; we need to see a future through our children."

Read the full issue of The Refugee Voice here.


• All governments should provide refugees within their territories the basic human rights enshrined in the UN Refugee Convention and other international human rights instruments, such as the right to freedom of movement, the right to documentation, the right to work and the right to seek an education. These rights should apply equally to those who choose to live in camps and to those in urban areas. 

• Governments must both recognize refugee rights in national legislation and policy, and also ensure that governmental and non-governmental institutions understand and respect the rights of refugees to live in both urban and non-urban environments and to obtain access to basic services. 

• Refugees residing in urban areas typically share all the needs of the urban poor, but face additional needs arising from their status as refugees. Non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations should recognize and respond to the special needs of refugees living in urban settings in order that they may fulfill their aspirations to become self-sufficient and contributing members of their host communities.

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