SA’s refusal to take in 126 Afghan refugees puts lives in danger: lawyers

03 September 2021 - 10:24
Pakistani soldiers stand guard in front of a member of the Taliban, in the background, during a media tour to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Torkham, Pakistan on September 2 2021.
Pakistani soldiers stand guard in front of a member of the Taliban, in the background, during a media tour to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Torkham, Pakistan on September 2 2021.
Image: Gibran Peshimam/Reuters

By saying no to a request to house 126 Afghan refugees, the SA government has placed their lives in danger.

That’s the view of lawyers Lara Mullins and Mark Pienaar. They were acting on behalf of the US-based NGO Exitus to ask for the refugees, who are fleeing a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, to be accommodated in SA.

The department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) said on Wednesday night it had received the request, but turned it down because SA’s social welfare system was already under strain.

The refugees are in Pakistan.

Mullins and Pienaar, of law firm Schuler Heerschop Pienaar Attorneys, requested on Exitus’s behalf that the 126 refugees — 60 of them children aged nine or younger — be allowed refuge in SA for six months.

Exitus specialises in rescuing people who have been trafficked throughout the world. The NGO’s founder and CEO Candace Rivera was driving the application, along with US-based Wade Hill of PerryHill Inc, who was standing surety.

“They offered to cover the private evacuation, housing, medical care and all other expenses of the refugees in question for a minimum of six months or however long it took to relocate these people once the dust settles. They were expected to be in SA for six months. However, the NGO had the funds and resources to maintain them for much longer if the need arose.

“They also had a private company based in SA agree to stand surety for them for any expenses incurred while the refugees were on SA soil. This company organised medical care and housing for all 126 individuals,” the lawyers told TimesLIVE on Thursday night.

Rejecting the request, they said, put the refugees at risk.

“Our client is deeply saddened and is concerned for the safety of these refugees in Pakistan as they have received harrowing reports about what is happening to these people, who are in no way safe from the Taliban having made it across the border and who have not been given asylum in Pakistan,” the lawyers said.

Our client is of the opinion that, if forced to stay in Pakistan, a large number of these people will be compromised and killed.
Lawyers Lara Mullins and Mark Pienaar

“The implications [of denying the request], as far as our client is concerned, are grave. These people cannot be protected by the Pakistani government from the wrath of the Taliban and our client has received direct reports from people on the ground of gross human rights violations inflicted on these people.

“Effectively, our client is of the opinion that, if forced to stay in Pakistan, a large number of these people will be compromised and killed.”

They were also critical of the reasons behind Dirco’s decision.

“The reason given in the official statement from Dirco is that SA cannot fund this exercise, but our client was never asking for a single rand of funding,” they said.

“Further to this, in their response to our office directly they stated ‘the government is of the view that refugee matters are best addressed on a regional basis’ and they speak about the large numbers of refugees who our country receives from other African countries.

“These reasons are problematic because this implies we have a quota system for the amount of refugees we will accept as a country [which some countries do], but we do not. It is in contradiction to our obligations as a member of the international community to assist those in crisis and the human rights culture our transformative constitutional democracy purports to uphold.”

Amnesty International SA said on Thursday the country must do everything it can to assist Afghans who risk being targeted after the Taliban takeover. The organisation said this included taking in refugees fleeing uncertainty in Afghanistan.

Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela said the request was that the refugees be accommodated after they fled to Pakistan.  

“The request is that they be accommodated in SA en route to their final destinations. The government is unfortunately not in a position to accommodate such a request.

“SA is already home to a substantial number of refugees and is seized with addressing their needs. Most of them benefit from the social assistance and free medical health programmes offered by our country,” Monyela said.

Amnesty International SA said the international community, including SA, should “keep their borders open and share the responsibility for the protection and assistance of refugees.

“They can do it through humanitarian aid and by opening and increasing safe and legal pathways to protection,” said the organisation’s executive director, Shenilla Mohamed.

“We are calling on the SA government to fulfil its international obligation to protect those who are in need.”

TimesLIVE


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