Pretoria News, 24 August 2007

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The government is failing to respect and uphold the basic rights of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrant groups across the country. Research by the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa - which combined several institutions including departments from the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town - concluded that refugees and asylum seekers are often denied health, educational and housing services. Executive member of the Consortium, lawyer Fatima Khan, said she was worried that the Department of Home Affairs was not functioning properly, adding to the many problems asylum seekers faced. Researchers found refugee and migrant women are regularly refused medical care and access to ARV treatment following rape, and to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Xenophobia within the public health system and confusion among health care providers over the rights of migrants coupled with lack of documentation from the Department of Home Affairs, meant many non citizens were denied rights to services. The study entitled Protecting Refugees and Asylum Seekers in SA 2007 recommends that the Department of Health take a leading role in ensuring that its staff, and those in complementary portfolios, are fully aware of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers to access health services. On the flip side, the report congratulates the Health Department for clarifying that patients do not need to possess South African ID books to access ART. The consortium also takes a swipe at the education system, which discriminates against the children born to refugees, asylum seekers and other migrant groups. Authors of the report quote a worried principal of one primary school in the Nkomazi district in northern KwaZulu-Natal on problems his school faced regarding asylum seekers. "While many in South Africa struggle to access education for their children, refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants face particular challenges due to documentation, fees, language, age and outright discrimination. "We are not allowed to take pupils without birth certificates since 2000. We cannot admit a pupil from Mozambique or Swaziland. If you do, they can charge you with misconduct, because you are breaking the law. Poverty-related barriers play a part in the failure of these children to attain basic education. But conversely the report states that: "Refugee or migrant parents are legally eligible to apply for a fee exemption, but they are less likely to request a fee exemption out of a lack of knowledge about their right to do so, language difficulties or fear of discrimination." The report underlines the indignities, injustices and difficulties the migrant population in question face in trying to get basic shelter. "Landlords extract higher rents, refuse to maintain property and do not return security deposits." Another concern is that the Department of Social Development's proposed Refugee Relief Fund has yet to be implemented. Lawyers for Human Rights have asked that the Department of Social Development gazette regulations stating that a refugee identification document or a Section 24 Recognition of Status Permit is sufficient for the purpose of obtaining social grants. The report also condemns the arrest, detention and deportation of asylum seekers at the Lindela holding camp at Beit Bridge. The report comes in the wake of a groundswell of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants, especially from Zimbabwe, flocking into the country to seek safety in the past few years. In 2006, 53 361 people applied for asylum but only 5 000 were effectively processed by the Home Affairs Department. Of these, 769 were accepted for refugee status at the first stage.