Fatima Khan: human rights lawyer, teacher, and master juggler

10 August 2021 | Story Niémah Davids. Photos Lerato Maduna. Read time 9 min.
Assoc Prof Fatima Khan is the director of UCT’s Refugee Rights Unit.
Assoc Prof Fatima Khan is the director of UCT’s Refugee Rights Unit.

Recognising the rights, needs and dreams of refugees is a fundamental step towards achieving social justice in South Africa. And the country is on the right track, said Associate Professor Fatima Khan, acclaimed human rights lawyer and the director of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Refugee Rights Unit.

“I believe that we’re on the right track. Our laws are progressive; and where Home Affairs administrators have given our laws a narrow reading, our judiciary has consistently got it right,” said Associate Professor Khan.

“And in my opinion, as long as our courts are getting it right, we are getting it right as a country.”

The Refugee Rights Unit is a research unit based in UCT’s Faculty of Law, and consists of a legal aid clinic and a research hub; it provides teaching, advocacy and training. Initially, providing refugees with legal aid services started as a special project within UCT’s Law Clinic – fulfilling a social responsibility function. But in 2006, the unit began operating independently, and to date has serviced thousands of refugees and asylum seekers.

In celebration of Women’s Month, UCT News will catch up with several influential women in our midst; Khan is one of them. We spoke to her about her illustrious career as a human rights lawyer, her work at the unit, and her relationship with UCT.


“I wanted to be one of those human rights lawyers whose first name was enough for a community to recognise.”

A fine human rights lawyer

When Khan joined UCT’s Law Clinic as a practising attorney in 2004, she had high hopes of becoming a respected South African human rights lawyer. Back then (and even today) she always admired the late Dullah Omar, the revered human rights lawyer, anti‑apartheid activist and former Minister of Justice.

“I wanted to be one of those human rights lawyers whose first name was enough for a community to recognise. I wanted to be a fine human rights lawyer, just like Dullah was in the 1980s,” she said.

During her first five years at UCT, Khan immersed herself in legal practice; and in many ways, she became the lawyer she’d always dreamed of being. Refugees around the country knew her by name, and knew that she was affiliated to UCT.

Khan was particularly active during the 2008 xenophobic attacks, and provided refugees and asylum seekers with much‑needed support during an horrific time in the country’s post‑apartheid history. For her work, she was recognised as a human rights lawyer who had made a marked difference in South Africa. As a result, and thanks to her involvement with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), her international profile catapulted. That was more than enough for her, she said proudly. However, the culture of excellence at UCT led her to expand on her vision.

Getting lucky

When the idea to expand the work of the refugee clinic came to her, Khan wasted no time in pitching the concept to the UNHCR, the Refugee Project’s biggest funder at the time. They embraced her vision and provided the funding, no questions asked.

South Africa is on the right track when it comes to recognising the rights, needs and dreams of refugees.

“I got lucky,” Khan said. “Funding from the UNHCR allowed me to extend my teaching and my research and to participate in law and policy development, and to engage in advocacy,” she said

The unit grew rapidly. In what felt like the blink of an eye, the staff complement increased from just two in‑house staff members to 11. Attorneys, candidate attorneys and researchers all formed part of the interdisciplinary team.

“I relish the fact that I can help students find employment at the clinic. Our students who are human rights-focused often struggle to find articles of clerkship [positions], despite many of them being cum laude students,” she said.

At the end of this year, five students will have completed their articles of clerkship at the clinic.

Hustle and bustle

The Refugee Rights Unit is anything but a quiet space. Roughly 5 000 refugees are assisted at the clinic annually, and the service offering varies. Refugee status determinations and detentions, deportations and finding schools for refugee children or facilitating access to healthcare are all part of their work.  

Besides providing assistance to those who need it most, the unit is a good example of the multiple synergies that exist between practice, research and teaching.

“Our students are the prime beneficiaries of this approach, and so are many others. I realised very early on that the Refugee Rights Unit is a place where we can make a difference – whether it is assisting refugees directly, inculcating in our students a sense of service to any community, or training magistrates, social workers, the South African Police Service or healthcare workers,” she said.

The unit is also involved with training government stakeholders in sub‑Saharan Africa, and hosting expert roundtables that focus on the rights of refugees, targeting international delegates.

Refugee Law in SA

In 2014, Khan co-authored a book with her colleague Tal Schreier titled Refugee Law in South Africa, and thereafter co‑authored and edited her second book on immigration law in South Africa.


“Together with the UNHCR, we are actively promoting this model of teaching, research, advocacy and practice at various universities in sub-Saharan Africa.”

The international academic community picked up on her work and the unit’s achievements, and has started to emulate their approach.

“Together with the UNHCR we are actively promoting this model of teaching, research, advocacy and practice at various universities in Southern Africa,” Khan said.

A workaholic

Khan said most of the current research on refugee law is directed at the notion of responsibility sharing, and at creating a framework for more predictable and equitable responsibility sharing. This approach also underpins the research work she now performs, in partnership with 13 international universities and the Centre for European Policy Studies. The project is funded by the European Union Commission.  

She also serves on the advisory board of the Max Planck Society in Germany – a non‑university research organisation dedicated to basic research, and the Refugees Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

So far, this year has been a busy one. By the end of July Khan had trained 24 newly appointed Refugee Appeal Authority judges and delivered a keynote address at a public event organised by London University, which focused on 70 years of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

“Lockdown just manifested what I always knew: I am always at work. Most of the time, I feel as though I am doing more than one job! Work keeps me very busy,” she said.

However, she does make time to enjoy her grandchildren and spend time with her children, even though she admits to often talking about her work during these get‑togethers. But her family understands that UCT is “undeniably a big part of my life”.

Taking ownership

“I didn’t realise just how much UCT has been a part of my life and how much it meant to me until 18 April, when that dreadful fire broke out,” she said.

Khan said her two young grandchildren were visibly upset when they realised that parts of campus had gone up in flames. After all, she’s not the only one who calls UCT her home away from home: Khan’s son, Dr Imran Allie, is a lecturer in UCT’s Department of Mathematics.

“I love that they took ownership of UCT that day. I guess it’s something I always found difficult, as a South African who lived under an apartheid government for more than half my life. I loved that it was easy for my grandchildren to feel a connection to UCT. Because when I first started at UCT in 1980, nothing about being there was easy. We boycotted everything, we didn’t take ownership of anything,” Khan said.  

Her message to all women this Women’s Day is to take ownership.


“Don’t wait for others to confirm that you belong. Be the winner, always do more than what’s required.”

“Don’t wait for others to confirm that you belong. Be the winner, always do more than what’s required, and put yourself out there to be an achiever. Success is hard work, but it can be so easily achieved,” she said.

“I follow a very simple philosophy. Whenever a task presents itself, firstly, let’s do it; secondly, let’s make sure we do it well; and finally, if we get it wrong, we try again.”

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.