Pretoria - The sad tale of a woman of mixed Ethiopian and Eritrean ethnic parentage – who as a youngster endured persecution and even sexual abuse at the hands of soldiers in her country before she fled to South Africa – has had a happy ending after many years, after the North Gauteng High Court came to her aid.
The woman, only identified as FAM in a judgment, entered South Africa in 2006 when she was 20. Since then she has tried to obtain refugee status. This was turned down as Home Affairs officials accused her of not telling the truth.
A “translator” whom she paid R50 to help her fill in her application forms years ago, apparently misunderstood her as they did not speak the same language. Without her being aware of it, he stated the wrong information, among others that said she fled Ethiopia as she had nowhere to go.
This while she had told him the full story of her life of abuse at the hands of the soldiers, and why she could not return.
When officials confronted FAM as to why her story had changed, she, with the help of another translator who also did not speak her language, told them the first translator had misunderstood her. The officials still did not believe her story and declined her refugee status.
FAM cannot return to her country of origin – she has no documentation to prove her nationality and now also has a South-African born daughter who – because of her mother’s situation – is stateless.
Acting Judge RM Keightley lashed out at the officials for failing to do their duty with regard to FAM’s situation and for making a derogatory remark about her claim that she had been sexually abused.
The chairperson of the refugee office had told the court that FAM, in a written representation to his office, “downgraded” her earlier averment that she had been raped, to her being “sexually assaulted”.
The judge said the chairman’s statement to the court implied sexual assault was a lesser form of violation and to be taken less seriously than rape. He said he hoped officials would in future refrain from making such “derogatory comments”.
In an unusual step, the judge also directly ordered that she be awarded refugee status, rather than referring the matter back to the standing committee for refugee affairs.
FAM was born in a village near the Ethiopian border with Eritrea. When she was a little girl, her mother was expelled to Eritrea. She never saw her again. Soldiers invaded the town she lived in during the war, shot her father and burnt down the family home and grain store.
She said she was physically and sexually assaulted by the soldiers and lost consciousness. She was found by her cousin, who fled with her to Addis Ababa. She was about 12 and enrolled in a technical college there, when soldiers from a revolutionary movement beat and shot students who refused to join them.
She again fled and eventually ended up in South Africa. She tried to apply for asylum through a ‘translator” who, for R50, completed her form on her behalf. He only spoke Amharic and she spoke Tigrinya.
Her battle to become an asylum seeker escalated due to the wrong answers the translator wrote on the application form. She was confronted with this during an interview by refugee officials, who used an interpreter who also only spoke Amharic. After the interview she was asked whether she had money. She said she did not and her application for refugee status was refused. She was not given any reasons for the refusal. Her subsequent appeal was also turned down.
The judge said the officials should have researched the conflict in Ethiopia/Eritrea to see that she could not return. Home Affairs also failed her in not – as the law stipulated – affording her a translator who spoke her home language.