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18 March 2018 21:26 (South Africa)
South Africa

Letter to the Editor: The UNHCR responds to Delphine Pedeboy

  • Tina Ghelli
    Tina Ghelli
  • South Africa

Earlier this month, the Daily Maverick re-published a GroundUp story by Delphine Pedeboy, who had interned for the UN in Cape Town, working with refugees. In the interests of promoting robust debate, we are here publishing a response from the UNHCR in its entirety. By TINA GHELLI.

Dear Editor,

I wish to refer to the article “How the UN in Cape Town deals with refugees: an insider’s account” by Delphine Pedeboy published on 14 May 2014.

There are a number of misrepresentations made in this article, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would like to correct. The first of these is that we want to explain how UNHCR works. UNHCR works with governments and NGOs in our operations around the world to implement a wide range of projects, including aid distribution, protection, logistics, shelter, health, water, sanitation, nutrition and education projects. In the context of South Africa, our focus is on legal and social assistance. In this regard in the Western Cape Province, UNHCR provides funding to NGO partners, like the University of Cape Town (UCT) Law Clinic, Cape Town Refugee Center and ARESTA to provide this assistance directly to the refugees. We do not provide direct assistance and we encourage refugees who need social or legal assistance to go directly to our partners.

UNHCR’s office in Cape Town opened in 2008 to help coordinate assistance to persons of concern who had been displaced during xenophobic attacks. Our main role was to help the government coordinate an effective response together with the various stakeholders. Over time the role of the Cape Town office evolved increasingly into protection delivery.

In the article, Ms. Pedeboy discusses the challenges around the telephone appointment system. This system only began on 13 January this year. It was a new system introduced to increase access of persons of concern to UNHCR in the Western Cape Province. Working with an urban refugee population spread out over a large area is extremely challenging. We are constantly trying to improve in this area and it was felt that this could be an additional way to reach out to refugees. Currently the appointment line is open every Monday between 2pm and 4 pm and all refugees are free to call for the available appointment slots.

As word of the telephone appointment system grew in the community in March, the telephone system was overwhelmed with high numbers of people trying to call. We readily admit that it is not an ideal situation and we have been exploring ways to improve it. Nevertheless, we have been able to reach and interview 370 refugees and asylum seekers from different nationalities through this appointment system that we may not have otherwise reached. There is no evidence in the article that the writer brought forward an innovative suggestion on how best to manage thousands of telephone calls to the Office or any other way of effectively increasing access to UNHCR for our beneficiaries.

We also want to stress that this is not the only way refugees can access UNHCR. The reality is that refugees with emergencies do not have to make appointments hence they are received on any day of the week through walk-ins or referrals. We receive referrals from both UNHCR funded implementing partners and operational partners. We also meet and conduct protection needs assessments with refugees who are referred to us by refugee community leaders, especially through our xenophobia watch group in the communities of the Western Cape.

We would also like to clarify that UNHCR currently enjoys a good working relationship with the Department of Home Affairs, our main government counterpart. The writer states that she tried to intervene on behalf of a refugee at the DHA office in Cape Town. What she omitted to mention was that she was not officially requested to accompany the asylum seeker and did so at her own initiative and without following the normal protocol in place between UNHCR and DHA.

With the numbers of refugees reaching levels that we have not seen since the early 90s, UNHCR operations all around the world struggle to be able to fulfill all the needs and our work in South Africa is also affected. Unlike in many other countries, South Africa has a legal regime that is favourable for the rights of refugees. The problem comes, of course, in terms of access to those rights, which is why we partner with organisations like the NGOs mentioned earlier that help them access those rights.

The writer’s assertion is that the office in Pretoria has more staff to the detriment of the office in Cape Town. The UNHCR office in Pretoria indeed does have more staff, but we would like to clarify that it is a regional office which covers 14 countries in Southern Africa and therefore, naturally, more staff is required.

Furthermore, UNHCR does not request interns to conduct refugee status determination (RSD), which does require considerable training and particular expertise. In South Africa, RSD is done by the government and not UNHCR. UNHCR undertakes assessments that are done at our partners’ offices to assist them in determining if the clients applying for financial assistance do indeed meet the assistance criteria. Only in exceptional circumstances does UNHCR conduct mandate RSD and this is done by specialised UNHCR officers.

In addition to a general misrepresentation of the work of UNHCR, the article also lists notable factual inaccuracies. Firstly, she claims to have worked for UNHCR for six weeks, yet our records show that her internship was exactly four weeks, not six weeks. Secondly, UNHCR's only official vehicle is a fully depreciated Toyota Corolla, acquired by UNHCR in 2008, and not a Mercedes as has been claimed. The writer was transported in the official vehicle during her internship, and she could not have failed to notice this. Given the age of the vehicle, it is in the process of being replaced as per UNHCR global fleet management guidelines.

Thirdly, this particular article was not balanced. It omits all the other services that the UNHCR Office in Cape Town performs with the limited human resources. Among others are resettlement interviews, which total more than 250 since the beginning of the year and the work with all stake holders in the asylum regime.

Our internships are offered depending on UNHCR’s requirements as well as the qualifications and capacity of the office that receive and supervise them. The majority of the interns who have worked with UNHCR in South Africa have benefited greatly from the experience and the Office has as well benefited from their service. We recognise that we can always offer better services to our persons of concern. UNHCR therefore welcomes positive and constructive criticism where it is meant to improve the quality of asylum of the persons we serve.


Tina Ghelli

Senior Regional External Relations Officer

UNHCR Regional Office for Southern Africa, Pretoria, South Africa

  • Tina Ghelli
    Tina Ghelli
  • South Africa

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