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Xenophobia: Refugees get an sms service to report abuse

Often sidelined outsiders can now use their cellphones to establish their rights, get answers about general issues and lodge complaints.

A new cellphone information service will enable foreigners in South Africa to report xenophobia, unlawful arrest and corruption, and to get access to basic services. 
The service, Help@Hand, was launched on Thursday by Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), which provides free legal services to refugees and asylum seekers. Foreigners living in the country often face discrimination and are often denied access to basic services, according to the organisation. 

“We have a dedicated team that automatically receives these reports. Depending on the nature of the report, this will be referred to the correct legal counsellor to either respond and attend to the query, or forward to one of our partner organisations to investigate and respond on,” says the LHR’s Kayan Leung. 

The tool to report attacks on foreigners in South Africa will also be used for research purposes and to develop an early warning system for such violence. 
“Once incidences are verified with our team, this information will be passed on to the police, and bulk messages can be sent to users to warn against incidences flaring up in certain areas,” Leung says.

Easy access from a basic cellphone
To access the service, users dial a USSD code and follow the instructions on the screen. The program is SMS-based and does not require a smartphone. It is available in four languages: English, Kiswahili, Somali and French. The cost varies according to the cellphone network provider. 

“We see over 10 000 asylum seekers and refugees in our law clinics annually. Many of these clients often travel from far outlying areas to reach the urban-based law clinics. This service aims to extend our reach to asylum seekers and refugees who would ordinary not be able to afford or find it difficult to travel to seek advice on basic legal advice and services,” she says.

The service gives refugees access to information compiled by the organisation’s human rights lawyers based on the most common issues raised by refugees. 
“It does not, however, replace face-to-face consultations with a legal counsellor for complex issues.”

Ina Skosana was a health reporter at Bhekisisa.