University of Cape Town: New centre at UCT to offer refugee law training

On Thursday, 5 August 2021, an online ceremony was held to acknowledge the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Judicial Institute for Africa (JIFA) based at UCT, the International Association of Refugees and Migration Judges (IARMJ) represented by its African chapter, and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

This memorandum will lead to the establishment of the new centre at UCT.

African jurisprudence

Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo, who is also the president of the African chapter of the IARMJ, said at the signing that when he sits in his own court, “dealing with [refugee] matters, it will be at a touch of a button where I will have access to African jurisprudence [legal theory] that deals with these issues.”

“The signing of the memorandum showcases the commitment of the [IARMJ] to improve the responses and solutions for refugees in the southern Africa region in particular, and in Africa in general,” said Valentin Tapsoba, the UNHCR regional director for Southern Africa.

Tapsoba said the project aims to assist UNHCR in meeting its mandate in the following work streams:

Capacity development in the field of refugee law
Policy development
Strengthening refugee status determination.
“The collaboration also includes the setup of a refugee law hub that will provide credible and up‑to‑date resources of relevant law and case law. Therefore, the project will offer assistance to judges in the drafting of judgments, advocates in the preparation of litigation, civil society in the formulation of policy and academics in research,” he added.

According to the signed memorandum, the parties will cooperate to establish an English-language centre of excellence at UCT that will “deliver international refugee and asylum law courses as well as statelessness and nationality law courses to judicial officers, legal practitioners, asylum and refugee decision makers, and academics”. It further states that the UNHCR would provide some of the funding for the implementation of the courses and provide technical support together with the IARMJ.

“African jurisprudence is often largely ignored or poorly referenced across the globe.”

Vanja Karth of JIFA said that there is a “huge” problem of access to resources to assist judicial officers and legal practitioners.

“African jurisprudence is often largely ignored or poorly referenced across the globe. So through our partnership with 15 legal information institutes across the continent, we have created such specific indexes, making access to legislation and case law easily searchable through a federated search tool.

“These cases are tagged with relevant keywords and our team of students write summaries for each case. Our collections are all free-access, cutting out the need for exorbitant fees to commercial publishers,” she said.

Ongoing training

Karth said that JIFA courses are all university-certified and that the programmes are developed by a team of judicial educators who have experience in adult education and judicial training.

“We use judges, academics and other experts such as NGO staff as facilitators [and] we believe that by bringing in these other experts, we can make sure that the training is responsive to recent developments, the practical realities on the ground and current thinking in legal issues.”

The memorandum states that participants will receive a UCT certificate on completion of the course.

“We will collaborate; we will identify training needs and topics; we will identify trainers and ensure that it continues on an ongoing basis.”

Judge President Mlambo explained that the centre would provide much-needed training to officers and practitioners, as well as continuity.

“The problem that we have had as a chapter [of the IARMJ] is that we only met once every two years and, when we met, we met different judges. We did not meet as regularly as we wanted to and we were unable to keep up to date with each other’s countries’ jurisprudential developments. Training will now no longer happen every two years over one and a half days in some remote place; it will happen throughout.

“We will collaborate; we will identify training needs and topics; we will identify trainers and ensure that it continues on an ongoing basis,” he said.

The ceremony ended with a virtual ribbon cutting over the logos of the three organisations.