The UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency), the International Association of Refugee and Migration Judges (IARMJ) and the Judicial Institute for Africa (Jifa), have committed to an exciting and potentially far-reaching new joint project: the establishment of a centre of excellence, based at the University of Cape Town, providing university-certified courses to judges around Africa on issues of asylum and refugee law.

These courses will also cover nationality law and statelessness with the participating judges, magistrates and others working with refugee law.

At a virtual signing event this week, representatives of the three arms that are working together on the project explained its great significance.

Refugee status

The director of the UNHCR’s regional bureau for Southern Africa, Valentin Tapsoba, said the new centre of excellence would target English-speaking participants from Africa and that there were plans for other such centres to assist judicial officers and advocates from French, Arabic and Portugese-speaking countries.

Tapsoba said the project would help the UNHCR build capacity in the field of refugee law, in developing policy in Africa and in strengthening the determination of refugee status.

The project would also include a continuously updated ‘refugee law hub’ to provide credible and up-to-date sources of relevant law for the legal community. Tapsoba characterised the project as offering a reliable source of law for judges to use in drafting decisions, for advocates who are preparing litigation, for civil society in the formulation of policy and for academics engaged in research.


‘This will contribute to improving protection, policy and practices for refugees and stateless persons as well as promoting knowledge of, and respect for, legal instruments and policy guidelines relating to refugees and stateless people.’

Gauteng judge president, Dunstan Mlambo, chair of the Africa chapter of the International Association of Refugee and Migration Judges, and thus another signatory of the memorandum of understanding officially signed this week, said in the past it had been difficult to keep up to date with developments in law and decisions on refugees and stateless people in the continent’s various jurisdictions. The new centre of excellence was therefore an important development and a new website, facilitated by Jifa, would allow access to the law as it is handed down.

Judge Mlambo said it meant that, sitting in his office, he could get African jurisprudence on refugee and migration law, as it happened, ‘at the touch of a button’.

Professional development

Speaking of refugees who are at the heart of the project, he said they had to enjoy the same protections as any other member of society.

Vanja Karth, director of Jifa, the third branch of the new project, said Jifa had been set up to complement the work of domestic judicial institutes in Africa, where they exist, and to offer opportunities for judges from jurisdictions where there were no judicial institutes to participate in courses for professional development.

Through its work, Jifa had realised that there was a huge problem of access to resources that judicial officers and legal practitioners needed for their work. In addition, Africa jurisprudence was often ‘largely ignored or poorly referenced across the globe.’

Search tool

Jifa had partnered with 15 legal information institutes across the continent, to create subject specific indexes, ‘making access to legislation and case law easily searchable through a federated search tool.’

Cases in the free access collections were tagged with relevant keywords, and a team of students wrote summaries for each case. ‘Through this partnership with the UNHCR and IARMJ we will be developing an index that focuses on refugee and migrant issues, hosted on an African platform, but also shared with the UNHCR’s Refworld site, to ensure that African jurisprudence is available at a global level.’

In addition Jifa had a team of ‘virtual clerks’, PhD students trained to write legal memos and do comparative research for judges on request. Now, these resources would be available to the other partners in the refugee project as well, she said.