'Govt red tape is turning refugees into criminals'
Sweeping draft refugee regulations set to become law despite furious protests from rights groups
In a week when the world celebrated the Madiba values of tolerance and respect, South Africa moved a step closer to criminalising thousands of asylum seekers waiting for permits from the Department of Home Affairs.
The comment period for draft refugee regulations expired on Tuesday – the day before Mandela Day – despite desperate pleas from civil society organisations for more time to respond.
The regulations outline proposed new measures to limit the rights of asylum seekers, including the rights to work and study which they currently enjoy.
The draft regulations, published on June 29 in the Government Gazette, also give asylum seekers just five days after arriving in South Africa to report to the nearest asylum reception centre, of which there are only a handful countrywide. If they fail to do so they may be excluded from refugee protection.
Another regulation proposes permanently “abandoning” asylum seeker applications if their temporary permit expires for 30 days or more – a common occurrence due to the huge administrative backlog within the Department of Home Affairs.
The Cape Town and Port Elizabeth refugee reception centres remain closed despite separate court orders for them to be reopened. The closures have contributed to large numbers of asylum seekers with expired permits and a backlog of between 133,000 and 250,000 appellants whose applications were denied.As a result, asylum seekers with little or no resources must sometimes travel huge distances to reach the back of the centre queue. Applicants typically wait years for their application to be finalised, during which they must continually renew their temporary permits.
Last year, the UN Human Rights Commission urged South Africa to abide by its international legal obligations to assist asylum seekers, rather than compound their problems.
Civil society organisations this week slammed the new regulations as yet another rights infringement. “Most of the regulations are problematic and limit the rights of asylum seekers,” said Marike Keller, policy development and advocacy specialist for Sonke Gender Justice.
Corey Johnson, from Cape Town’s Scalabrini Centre, said the latest regulations appeared to be aimed at trying to decrease the backlog without finalising applications.
“This is their way of clearing the backlog. What it means is that thousands of refugees will be excluded from the system without any determination of their status, resulting in large numbers of undocumented people who cannot be removed but lack legal status,” Johnson said.
Sherylle Dass, Legal Resources Centre director, said the regulations would not pass constitutional muster. “Our main concern was that these regulations were substantially non-compliant with the international and domestic legal framework for refugee protection,” Dass said.
“The curtailment of the rights of asylum seekers to work and study in South Africa is a serious violation of their constitutional rights, particularly with regard to the rights of asylum seeker children to access basic education – an immediately realisable fundamental right available to all children within the Republic of South Africa.”
Last year UNHCR, which provides material assistance to asylum seekers worldwide, urged South Africa to allow refugees the right to work.
Responding to Times Select queries, the organisation said: “UNHCR acknowledges the challenges that the Republic of South Africa is facing in asylum management due to the high number of asylum applications. Nevertheless, UNHCR considers that the right to work is a fundamental human right, integral to human dignity and self-respect, and that reliance on assistance is not conducive to self-sufficiency.”
Home Affairs did not respond to questions from Times Select.