The meaningful participation of refugees in decision-making and in the design and implementation of programs that affect their lives is key to ensuring that refugee response systems are impactful and sustainable. But, how can the legal community support refugee-led organizations to overcome barriers to greater refugee participation and partner with refugee-leaders to address the legal needs of their communities? 

In February 2022, Jasmine Simperingham, Global Coordinator – Forced Displacement at PILnet, was hosted by the Southern Africa Refugee-Led Network (SARLN) to help the network explore this question. The Conference – co-hosted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and funded by The Independent Diplomat, Open Society Foundations, and Xavier Project (now Cohere) – was the first national refugee-led conference in South Africa. 

Together with legal actors in South Africa, including Probono.org and Scalabrini, Jasmine facilitated a number of sessions to support SARLN members to identify the key legal barriers preventing greater refugee participation in South Africa and to design solutions to address these. Principle among the concerns identified by SARLN were the difficulties experienced by community members in accessing their rights due to issues in the asylum and documentation process in South Africa. This includes an inability for new asylum seekers to register their claim due to the physical closure of refugee reception offices , lengthy – sometimes decade long – delay in the determination of refugee status and difficulties in obtaining and renewing documentation.

Following the conference, SARLN established a refugee-led ‘Law Commission’ and joined the Global Refugee Forum Legal Community Pledge. The Commission will engage refugees and the legal community to co-design and implement solutions to the legal challenges faced by the refugee community,  including developing a road map for implementation of the Pledge. Priority activities identified by SARLN include partnering with the legal community to:

  1. Train community workers/refugee leaders on asylum and documentation processes, as well as how they can support their community members to access education, health, social security rights and to respond to situations of immigration detention.  
  2. Promote existing and establish new law clinics or other opportunities for refugees to receive direct legal consultations for documentation, asylum-related and other legal needs (e.g. employment law).
  3. Map and network with services within their own communities (including South Africa’s Community Advice Offices which have their own paralegal programme). 
  4. Develop an evidence-based multi-level advocacy strategy – at the community and ministerial levels – to push for changes to the asylum and documentation process.

PILnet looks forward to working with SARLN and other refugee-led organizations to foster connections between legal and refugee communities around the world and support greater refugee leadership within access to justice programming.

To learn more about the work that SARLN is undertaking to strengthen refugee participation in South Africa follow them on twitter.

To learn more about the Global Refugee Forum Legal Community Pledge and how you can get involved please visit our Forced Displacement page.