Academic journal article Refuge

Interpretation Consistent with International Law? the Detention of Asylum Seekers in South Africa

Academic journal article Refuge

Interpretation Consistent with International Law? the Detention of Asylum Seekers in South Africa

Article excerpt


On paper, South African law concerning detention of asylum seekers appears consistent with international standards. However, the text of the Act is vague and overly broad, permitting interpretations inconsistent with international human rights standards. Further, in practice, officials often fail to uphold even the lowest standards of the Act, in violation of South African law. In order to protect the rights of asylum seekers, the South African government should institute formal guidelines and training programs, as well as a system of strong supervision and accountability, to ensure that the Act and Regulations are interpreted in a manner consistent with international law. Such a step will enable South Africa to live up to its noble post-apartheid human rights ideals.


Sur du papier, la loi sud-africaine sur la detention des demandeurs d'asile semble conforme aux normes internationales. Cependant le libelle de cette Loi est vague et par trop &endue, permettant ainsi des interpretations qui sont incompatibles avec les normes internationales en matiere des droits de la personne. En outre, dans la pratique, bien souvent les officiels ne respectent meme pas les normes minimales prevues par la Loi--en soi une violation des lois sud-africaines. S'il vent vraiment proteger les droits des demandeurs d'asile, le gouvernement sud-africain devra instaurer des directives formelles et des programmes deformation, doubles d'un systeme de supervision renforcee et de reddition de comptes, afin de garantir que la Loi et les Reglements soient interpretes de matiere conforme an droit international. Une telle mesure permettra d l'Afrique du Sud d'honorer ses nobles ideaux de l'apres-apartheid en matiere des droits de la personne.

On paper, South African law relating to detention of asylum seekers generally conforms to international human rights law. Like other areas of law in this young democracy, the acts and regulations were written with high ideals. However, the legacy of apartheid, both economic and institutional, presents serious obstacles to efforts to transform these visions into a functioning human rights culture. Government officials often fail to implement the safeguards written in the law, thereby abrogating both international and domestic obligations. South African efforts to meet and surpass international human rights standards with regards to the detention of asylum seekers should be applauded and supported, but the government department responsible for refugee protection and processing, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), should also be closely monitored to ensure that it lives up to these principles in practice.

International Standards

International human rights treaties ratified by South Africa provide broad prohibitions on arbitrary detention and restriction of freedom of movement of refugees. (1) Under the South African Constitution, "[w]hen interpreting any legislation, every court must prefer any reasonable interpretation of the legislation that is consistent with international law over any interpretation that is inconsistent with international law." (2) The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provides guidance in interpreting international law relating to detention of asylum seekers, finding "[a]s a general principle, asylum seekers should not be detained." (3) According to the Executive Committee of the UNHCR, "[d]etention may be resorted to only on grounds prescribed by law to verify identity; to determine the elements on which the claim to refugee status or asylum is based; to deal with cases where refugees or asylum seekers have destroyed their travel and/or identity documents or have used fraudulent documents in order to mislead the authorities of the State in which they claim asylum; or to protect national security or public order. (4) Further, detention of refugees and asylum seekers should be subject to judicial or administrative review. …

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