Interview by Shannon Haugh
With human rights enshrined in its Constitution, South Africa has stood as a beacon of hope for refugees across the African continent. Despite this vision, refugees (mostly from Somalia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo) still face discrimination in the process of seeking asylum. Every day, hours before sunrise, lines of refugees stand in front of the Department of Home Affairs—the country’s immigration office—to plead their cases for asylum status. The ground is often muddy from recent rains, scattered with trash, and occasionally human waste due to a lack of toilets. Many refugees’ claims are deemed “unfounded.” Other claims are never heard. Violence and chaos often characterize the Department of Home Affairs’ Refugee Reception Center.
People Against Suffering, Oppression, and Poverty (PASSOP) is a grassroots, non-profit organization based just outside of Cape Town, South Africa where it seeks to advocate, serve, and promote the rights of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants in South Africa. Shannon Haugh, the Editor-In-Chief of Public Diplomacy Magazine, sat down with Guillain Koko, PASSOP’s LGBT Refugee Project Coordinator, to learn more about PASSOP’s public diplomacy strategy. Koko is a human rights lawyer from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he once worked with the United Nations Mission to monitoring human rights violations. In 2012, Koko joined PASSOP and worked first as a paralegal officer prior to become a Project Coordinator.
Shannon Haugh: Tell me about PASSOP. How did it start and how has it progressed?
Guillain Koko: PASSOP started in 2007 in the context of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa against refugees. The attackers thought refugees were taking their jobs. People were killed. Soon after, Braam Hanekom, Anthony Muteti, and various volunteers went to Home Affairs to start helping refugees with complex legal documents and appeals. When Home Affairs adopted policies that hurt refugees or failed to provide them basic services, Braam, Anthony, and the volunteers began protests and demonstrations to advocate on behalf of the refugees. PASSOP applied to various philanthropic organizations for funding, like the Atlantic Philanthropic and Open Society Foundation. Later on, PASSOP grew up and started to develop programs to serve the vulnerabilities of our clients including the Disabled Children project, the LGBTI Refugee project, Anti-Xenophobic Project and the Gender Rights project. Today, we provide paralegal assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and other foreign nationals, organize workshops and integration events to promote collaboration and cooperation among people of different backgrounds. We want people to learn to live together and love each other according to the spirit of “UBUNTU.” We showed them the importance and value of cooperating together. We want refugees and South Africans to learn to see others as brothers and sisters. Ubuntu, meaning “solidarity,” is the message we stand behind. PASSOP has really grown up from when it first started.
SH: Who are your main partners?
GK: We partner with international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the United Nations Refugee Center, and the Organization for Refugee, Asylum & Migration, among others. They have really helped us spread the word while adding legitimacy to our work. Our local partners are also important. Locally, we work with legal organizations like the University of Cape Town Law Clinic, the Legal Resources Centre, also the Scalabrini Center, the Cape Town Refugee Center, the Catholic Welfare Program, the African Center for Migration and Society at Wits University in Johannesburg, the South African Liaison Office, Sonke Gender Justice, Triangle Project, Free Gender, Gender Dynamic, and the Foundation for Human Rights.
SH: The Home Affairs Refugee Reception Center has been chaotic at times. As a volunteer there in the summer of 2013, I have personally witnessed violence and chaos in the lines. There are no proper toilets. I have seen police show up with large weapons to intimidate people. PASSOP has successfully mobilized its staff and volunteers to monitor the Center, pressure Home Affairs to bring order to the line, and provide services to the refugees. Refugees who have been supported by PASSOP while in line at the Center have reported they have: a) been treated well and; b) been given a longer extension than usual.How much of this can we attribute to PASSOP? What kind of tools does PASSOP use to implement change?
GK: PASSOP started to monitor the Refugee Reception Center every day. We produced reports based on the information we received from surveying people. How are people being treated in the queue? How are vulnerable people, like disabled and pregnant women being treated? We call for the effective implementation of the South African Refugee Act and better service delivery for refugees. We met with the Department of Home Affairs and a good result came from that dialogue and engagement. This did not happen from one time. We went several times. If Department of Home Affairs is not cooperative, we protest in front of the Refugee Reception Center or outside of the South African Parliament in Cape Town. In the past, the Department of Home Affairs failed to come up with a better queuing management system to meet with every person in the queue. As a result of the poor queuing system, many refugees (traveling from all over South Africa) spend the entire day waiting without ever being seen. Now, Home Affairs serves everyone in the queue. They have recently installed toilets. They expedite services for pregnant women in the queue. As winter and the rain that comes with it approaches, PASSOP is negotiating a roof being built to shelter people in the queue so they can stay dry. However, we still have some pending issues with the Department of Home Affairs and the Refugee Reception Office in Cape Town. The first of these issues is the failure to comply with the Court order to serve newcomers. The second deals with extending permits to all asylum seekers regardless of their offices of origin.
SH: What are the challenges PASSOP currently faces?
GK: Lack of funding. In the past 3 years, most of our funding comes from the Atlantic Philanthropic Office. They are now pulling out from South Africa. Other donors also are pulling out of South Africa and going to other African countries because they assume that South Africa no longer has problems. The Refugee Law Clinic at the University of Cape Town was also affected by the funding issue. Now, they lack the staff necessary to perform the work they were doing for refugees and asylum seekers. As a result, PASSOP has absorbed many of their responsibilities. In addition to our job, we are doing some of the work that other organizations were doing. Our office is full and it has gotten to the point where even some of our neighbors are complaining to our landlord.
Besides the funding issue, another issue comes from Home Affairs and their poor policies. Many refugees travel from across South Africa to receive services and they wait all day and don’t get served. Some people can’t afford the long trip and the accommodations to travel and stay in Cape Town. Other people are not aware of the policies and consequently, they get arrested. South Africa also still struggles with xenophobia. For example, there was a fear that when Mandela died, all the foreigners would be chased away. Of course it was a rumor, but it was taken very seriously.
SH: What is the relationship between PASSOP and the government?
GK: Home Affairs is supposed to be our partner because we need to work together to deliver better services to the refugees and asylum seeker community. When it comes to corruption, we are very involved in the fight and very vocal. We are there to serve people. We need to remind Home Affairs of their obligation. Whenever we see that there is some discrepancy, we do something. In partnership with other with other organizations, we have taken Home Affairs to court to dispute their decision to stop providing services to new applicants and refusing to serve people who got their 1st permit from other offices and now live in Cape Town.
SH: What kind of relationship does PASSOP have with the media?
GK: Generally, the media comes to us to cover our advocacy work and activities in support to the refugee community. We report our problems, and the response (or lack of response) from the government. Several documentaries have also been made. They come to us to interview refugees and asylum seekers. Most of the time, they come to us to look for the stories to highlight the plight of refugees.
SH: What kind of digital presence does PASSOP have? What kind of digital tools does it use to advocate for refugees?
GK: Social media has played a huge role in helping us spread the news and connect with people. Just recently, two LGBT activists in Uganda contacted us via Facebook. We provided them with support and guided them out of harm’s way by helping them get refugee status here in South Africa. Many others contact us through these social media platforms. We also communicate with the public with frequent press statements and tweets.
SH: Can you speak a little about the PASSOP solidarity network?
GK: The solidarity network is a group of LGBT refugees in South Africa. An LGBT refugee faces double discrimination as a foreigner and as an LGBT. They are often isolated and this isolation can lead to suicide. Through the solidarity network, LGBT refugees are able to connect with each other and share ideas and give each other advice. Sometimes they throw events. It is a way for people to reach each other.
SH: There is a huge global network of people who have interned or volunteered at PASSOP. What do you think is the impact of this?
KG: They become PASSOP ambassadors and spread the news of PASSOP.