The project was launched by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation Torture (CSVR) last year to provide holistic support to this vulnerable social group.
LHR’s Federica Micoli said the three organisations saw first-hand what negative impact violence, traumatic events and difficult living conditions had on the mental health of refugees – and sought to address the problem with assistance and by restoring human dignity.
The project facilitates access to legal or advocacy assistance by LHR, counselling by CSVR and short-term material support in the form of food and housing through UNHCR, which also funds the project.
“We realised some of our clients were emotionally unstable, which made it difficult to work with them.
“They were inconsistent with their stories and their appointments. Sometimes they were aggressive and we did not really manage to assist them because they became dangerous.
“We realised mental or emotional instability created gaps in people’s memories and impacted on the way they related their stories, which again impacted on their credibility and getting asylum and refugee status.
“For a person with mental instability, a document becomes the last thing they think about, because they have larger problems to deal with, such as finding a job and accommodation.
“So they’re left out of the system because they can’t explain their problems – and then they simply give up.
“When their documentation expires it becomes an even bigger problem because they’re undocumented and get arrested – which doesn’t help their mental situation.”
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme said although only a small minority of refugees suffer from mental health problems, those who do faced huge obstacles to health care and seeking and keeping employment.
Micoli said some refugees arrive with temporary mental pro-blems, which can be treated with medication. But this needs to be taken with food, for which they have no money. Medication is then discontinued and thus temporary problems become permanent.
“Sometimes they can access mental health institutions for short-term treatment, but because they often don’t have a family here and lack community support, they don’t follow up on treatment. The majority are not yet recognised as refugees and are still asylum-seekers, who have no access to social grants and are not assisted by the State,” she said.
According to UN figures, there were 65 000 recognised refugees, but over 235 000 asylum-seekers in South Africa last year.
Ramjathan-Keogh said there were so many asylum-seekers because the system takes years to finalise claims that should take six months.