Refugees' miseries have only begun when they reach SA
Asylum permit backlogs have nearly crippled Home Affairs' refugee services, and left hundreds of thousands of desperate people mired in uncertainty
Every few months Mohamed Ali wakes up at 2am so that he can be first in line to renew his asylum seeker permit at Customs House in Cape Town.
If he is there after five, the Somali says the slow process and long queues mean he will have no chance of completing his application that day.
Ali has been forced to renew his permit 17 times in the eight years he’s been in South Africa, only because he has still not received an appeal date five years after having his application for refugee status denied.
Nearly a million cases needed to be considered for asylum by the Department of Home Affairs by the end of 2016, according to the government’s Asylum Report for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which was presented to parliament last year.The increasing number has caused huge backlogs at the department, resulting in cases like Ali’s which go unattended for years.
It has nearly crippled the department’s refugee management services and has left hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in limbo, unable to get jobs, apply for bank accounts or get an education.
Last year the Refugee Appeal Board heard only 401 appeal cases out of a backlog of 133,043 active cases carried over from 2016. The board consisted of only three members, all of whom are required to sit together to hear each case.
Advocacy officer Corey Johnson, from the Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town, which assists refugees and asylum seekers, said the situation is “extremely concerning for us”.“It underscores how the asylum system has collapsed completely and it means that legitimate refugees remain stuck as asylum seekers for as long as a decade or more,” Johnston said.
“Even if the appeal board begins functioning more effectively the backlog will take years to clear from this point, so it’s time that practical solutions are considered, like granting refugee status to all individuals in the backlog from war-torn countries.”
Loren Landau, from Wits University’s African Centre for Migration and Society, said the asylum system was under threat but that the challenge was not the numbers but the lack of pragmatic immigration policy, poor capacity and populism.
“The asylum system has never worked because it has been essentially the only option for people from the region. This means the numbers are far higher than they should be. But instead of opening other options for job seekers, the government is closing them down.
“Current policies are creating a crisis where there need not be one.”The situation remained critical despite South Africa receiving only 35,377 asylum applications in 2016 compared to the 223,324 it received in 2009 – more than six times less applicants.
Department spokesperson David Hlabane told Times Select that there were a number of factors contributing to the backlog. Hlabane also said that of the over 900,000 outstanding cases, nearly 700,000 were inactive and that most of those were abandoned, with only 218,299 cases remaining active.Delays caused by the asylum process, providing a notice of an appeal hearing and a collapse of the Refugee Appeal Board(RAB) in 2016 were behind the backlog, according to Hlabane.
“The challenge is that those with expired permits become eligible for renewal but do not always fall in the dates when RAB is available for hearings at the Refugee Reception Office,” he said.
“[Also], as at the end of January 2017, the RAB consisted of one member based in Cape Town and an acting chairperson based in Pretoria ...This meant that RAB was not quorate since May 2016 and did not issue any decisions.”
Hlabane said the situation was corrected in February 2017 and would be improved further when the new amendments to the Refugee Act are adopted.
And it couldn’t come sooner for Ali, who despite all the broken promises and lies he was told from officials, still believes he can get a refugee status in South Africa and not be forced to return to his own war-torn country.
“I’m still hoping to get a hearing and get asylum,” he said. “I won’t give up because my life depends on it.”