According to Stats SA, there are an estimated 65 500 refugees and 230 000 asylum-seekers in South Africa, a number which is no doubt on the increase because of the current global refugee crisis, says the writer. File photo: Motshwari Mofokeng
The lives of refugees can be permanently impacted if they are left to traverse the complicated Department of Home Affairs system alone.

Tuesday, June 20 marked World Refugee Day, a day designated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to draw attention to the difficulties faced by forcibly displaced people worldwide. Approximately 65.6million people have been forced to flee their homes because of persecution, conflict, generalised violence and human rights violations. The day is used to increase public understanding of what it means to be a refugee and to show support and acknowledge the strength, courage and perseverance of these individuals. It is also a call on governments to work together to assist refugees.

According to the UN Refugee Agency’s Global Trends study, about 20 people were forced to flee their homes every minute last year, or one every three seconds - the majority came from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. The world is experiencing the largest refugee crises since World War II. This heightens the significance of World Refugee Day 2017. Refugees are among the most vulnerable groups in our society and generally remain as such throughout their displacement. People rarely flee their homes out of free choice. They make the difficult decision to flee because of exposure to daily danger and because civilians become the main victims of conflict through violence, bombings, executions, sexual violence, recruitment of child soldiers and forced disappearances.

Families leave their countries, their homes and their loved ones behind, often with no notice and little preparation time; with few belongings, often with no documentation and little money. They travel in life-threatening conditions.

On arrival in their countries of destination, they are generally treated with hostility. They are often denied refugee status (despite states making international commitments to grant their status) and can be denied access to their most basic of human rights including education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. They therefore live in a state of limbo and secondary persecution.

According to Stats SA, there are an estimated 65 500 refugees and 230 000 asylum-seekers in South Africa, a number which is no doubt on the increase because of the current global refugee crisis. These refugees need help. They need help from civil society, in accepting and welcoming them. They need help from NGOs to ensure their socio-economic needs are met.

They need the help of the state in ensuring they are granted timeous refugee status. Because their very life, liberty and security interests are at stake every time they engage in a legal process to determine their right to protection, refugees also need the practical help of the lawyers in the society they find themselves.

Refugees in South Africa have to traverse a complicated Department of Home Affairs system and a complex legal system. If left to navigate this system without legal help, their lives can be permanently detrimentally impacted. Lawyers are also needed to help refugees understand and enforce their legal rights and responsibilities.

ProBono.Org and global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright have committed to giving refugees the legal help they need, as well as training lawyers to provide legal assistance. This year's World Refugee Day marked the launch of ProBono.Org’s initiative to train as many South African lawyers as possible through the publication of three Practitioners Guides to Refugee Law.

These practical guides, which will be available online, will equip lawyers to offer their services to refugees free of charge independently or through ProBono.Org’s refugee clinics. ProBono.Org commissioned these works from Norton Rose Fulbright, Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyer and Fasken Martineau. The Practitioners Guide provides a summary of refugee law and sets out the practical steps for lawyers to take on refugee-related matters. It assists practitioners in identifying who qualifies as a refugee, assists in applications for asylum and helps them navigate the status-determination process.

It deals with what to do if an application for asylum is rejected, how to appeal a rejection or take a case on judicial review, and what to do if an asylum seeker is arrested and faces deportation. It also advises on the protection of the constitutional rights of asylum seekers and other issues such as permanent residency and citizenship, dealing with unaccompanied minors and statelessness. It is hoped that by equipping South African lawyers in the area of refugee law, the state and the Department of Home Affairs - which has a refugee system currently under heavy strain - will be positively affected as well. Legal intervention avoids decision-makers having to assess poorly written and unfocused claims; it can eliminate fraudulent claims for asylum which bog the system down unnecessarily, decrease the processing time of legitimate claims and reduces the chances of the decision-maker’s decision being taken on appeal or review in the long-run.

Lawyers are helped by refugees too. At Norton Rose Fulbright, the pro bono work that its lawyers are committed to doing has proven invaluable, not only to the individuals that have been assisted, but to its lawyers personally and professionally.

Dealing with individuals who have experienced such trauma is a humbling experience which brings lawyers back to their roots and often reminds them why they went into practice in the first place - to provide access to justice for the most vulnerable and to pursue better systems of justice for people.

The current refugee crisis is a multifaceted problem. Rendering pro bono services on a complex issue tests the skills of lawyers and hones problem-solving skills. It helps younger lawyers gain valuable experience and contributes to the social responsibility and global citizenship of lawyers.

* Nicki van’t Riet is a senior associate at Norton Rose Fulbright

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday independent