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DukeEngage Cape Town works with organizations providing assistance to migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in Cape Town, South Africa. This reflection by Malachy Sullivan T’26 focuses on the difficulty of coming to terms with his organization’s inevitable limitations when faced with someone whom he could not help.

The Refugee Rights Unit is a UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]-funded NGO operating out of the University of Cape Town Law School to provide free legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in the City of Cape Town and surrounding areas. I have had the absolute privilege to work there and be one small part of their greater mission to help a marginalized and overlooked group of people. Under the supervision of experienced and incredibly knowledgeable attorneys, I took depositions and assisted clients in applying for asylum, appealed unfounded rejections, submitted legal representation to the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs, and organized direct legal representation.

A young man wearing glasses sit behind a computer
Mal Sullivan sit behind his desk at the Refugee Rights Unit.

Thinking about what has stuck with me most during my time in Cape Town, South Africa, I reflect on a woman, who I’ll refer to as Jane, who came into the office at the Refugee Rights Unit. Her story was unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. She grew up in a small town in Nigeria, and, when she was 15 years old, her family trafficked her to an extremely rich South African national. He brought her to his home in George (a small town in the Western Cape), where he repeatedly raped her. Jane became pregnant and eventually had two children at the hands of her jailer and abuser. He also denied her immigration documents out of fear she would take the children and leave. Finally, in 2021, Jane did exactly that, and she went to live on the streets of Cape Town with her children. A good Samaritan took her in, and with the help of a trafficking NGO in Cape Town she filed a police report. The case looked like it was proceeding, until police informed her that the investigation had been closed and that they found no evidence of abuse. Jane’s trafficker then filed for custody of the children. He hired a social worker and psychologist to come to Jane’s home and fill out a falsified report. On his payroll, they wrote and submitted documents to the High Court that claimed Jane “practices vodun” and “is a prostitute,” and should be regarded as incapable of taking care of her children. Jane’s abuser also paid off a staff member in the High Court to ensure that he received a temporary protection order.

Jane’s case is set to be finalized in August, and she came to the Refugee Rights Unit at the University of Cape Town desperate for legal representation. Jane’s trafficker had doubtless used his wealth and power to make sure the case went his way at every step, and Jane was understandably desperate for help to ensure she could see her kids again.

I brought Jane’s deposition to my supervisor, who told me that Jane wasn’t technically a refugee, and her case had been filed outside the City of Cape Town, such that her case fell outside the office’s mandate. I had to look Jane in the eye and tell her that we couldn’t help her. It was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do. And, that’s not the only time I’ve had to refuse a client services: I’ve had to tell many clients fleeing poverty or starvation that there was nothing the Refugee Rights Unit could do to help them. That’s difficult to grapple with. In an asylum system that treats refugees unfairly, clients come to the Refugee Rights Unit because they see it as a beacon of hope, and, sometimes, we have to turn them away all the same.

It is incredibly hard, but at the same time it reminds me of all the good the Unit does. Cases like these and cases like Jane’s are outliers. For the few people for whom service or support has been denied, I’ve been witness to dozens of successful cases: people have been able to start new lives, reconnect with family, and fight back against a brutal asylum system. The Unit provides so much hope and produces tangible outcomes for so many people who might remain undocumented and in constant fear of deportation. But it is also a bureaucratic organization, bound by strict, inefficient, and unhelpful policies. My sense is not that I know how to unpack this dilemma or that I fully understand the implications. I just mean to say that that’s been something I’ve struggled to reconcile.

I’m really happy I get to work at the Refugee Rights Unit. I’m happy I can make a small difference in people’s lives, and I’m happy that the work the Unit does truly puts smiles on people’s faces and brings them a small bit of security and hope. I was even able to recommend extra resources to Jane at the direction of my DukeEngage professor. I’ve met strong and extraordinary people and have been able to provide some few assurances in a place where asylum seekers and other displaced people get so few.