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Transforming Society

Securing Rights

Restoring Dignity

SAHRC: It is our Constitutional Imperative to Protect the Healthcare Rights of Refugees and Asylum Seekers


Attention: Editors and Reporters

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The South African Human Rights Commission (the Commission) recognises the significance of World Refugee Day, which is commemorated on the 20th June 2017.

According to the most recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with 22.5 million international refugees worldwide. These are persons who have been forced to leave their countries in search of safety elsewhere. Based on these statistics, 28 300 people a day are forced to flee their homes and countries because of conflict and persecution.

South Africa is host to a significant refugee population from many parts of the African continent and beyond, fleeing persecution, civil conflict and wars that threaten human limbs and lives. According to UNHCR statistics on South Africa in 2015, South Africa hosted nearly 122 000 refugees and 1.1 million asylum seekers. Based on 2016 statistics, South Africa now hosts 91 043 refugees and 218 299 asylum seekers.

Refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa face a number of challenges. Access to healthcare is arguably one of the most pressing of these challenges. This is a matter of serious concern for the Chairperson of the Commission, Advocate Bongani Majola, whose focus areas are Migration and Health.

“Refugees and asylum seekers face a peculiar disadvantage in accessing healthcare given their status as non-nationals. This is compounded by xenophobia and discrimination. Refugees and asylum seekers are often denied access to healthcare owing to their nationality.” says Advocate Majola.

A Human Rights Watch report noted that where they were treated, refugees and asylum seekers, were often charged international fees. This is despite of the fact that the law provides for refugees and asylum seekers to be treated in the same manner as South African nationals.

International law, the Constitution and domestic laws protect the right to healthcare of refugees and asylum seekers. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its accompanying Protocol, refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to adequate, accessible, timely and efficient health care. This is echoed by another International Human rights instrument, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whereas the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, establishes the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of health possible. South Africa is party to all three international instruments.

Section 27 of the Constitution – the supreme law of South Africa - states that “Everyone has the right to access to health care”. This means the Constitution recognises the right of everyone to access the highest standard of healthcare possible in publicly funded health care facilities. Case law further clarifies that the word ‘everyone’ in this section ‘cannot be construed as referring only to “citizens”, in the judgments of Khosa and Others v Minister of Social Development and Others and Mahlaule and Another v Minister of Social Development and Others.

The Commission thus calls on all state healthcare facilities to abide by their Constitutional duty to provide equitable and quality healthcare to all who live in South Africa, including refugees and asylum seekers.


Issued by the South African Human Rights Commission

Gail Smith – Spokesperson Tel: 0609883792 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Gushwell Brooks – Communications Co-ordinator Tel: 082 645 8573 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The South African Human Rights Commission.

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About us

The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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011 877 3600 (Switchboard)

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