JOHANNESBURG, 20 January 2012 (IRIN) - Asylum-seekers entering South Africa are no longer being issued with the necessary documents to apply for refugee status. Without a so-called section 23 permit, they are being turned away from Refugee Reception Offices (RROs) and denied the opportunity to legalize their stay in the country.
“We keep coming back here but they won’t help us without those papers,” said Abdul, a Somali national in one of the queues that had been forming in a patch of wasteland across the street from the Marabastad RRO in Pretoria since the early hours of a recent Wednesday morning. “They tell us to just go back to the border and get deported back to our country.”
“I heard it was easy to get asylum here and I was tired of conflict,” said Mohammed, another Somali who had arrived at Marabastad at 2am to join the queue. “I’ve been here three weeks and this is my fourth time here, I’m just trying my luck. They’re asking for the 14 days (section 23) paper, which I don’t have.”
The section 23 permit is normally issued to anyone entering the country who wants to apply for asylum. It gives them 14 days to report to an RRO and formally apply for refugee status, although following an amendment to South Africa’s immigration law, the section 23 permit will soon only be valid for five days.
Several observers IRIN spoke to at Marabastad said that since the beginning of December 2011, newly-arrived asylum-seekers had been coming to the office without section 23 permits and were turned away by home affairs officials before they even reached the entrance to the building.
“They used to take about 100 newcomers a day, but now they turn everyone away, it doesn’t matter what nationality you are,” said Abdi Abdullahi, a Somali national who comes to Marabastad to assist his fellow Somalis with translation every Wednesday - the only day of the week when new applications from East Africans are accepted. “Newcomers have no access so fewer people are coming. Too many people just stay at home without legal permits.”
Refugee office closures
The new and unannounced policy of not issuing section 23 permits appears to have gone into effect just as refugee rights activists were celebrating two high court decisions which questioned the legality of the closure of RROs in Johannesburg and the east coast city of Port Elizabeth by the Department of Home Affairs.
The Crown Mines RRO in Johannesburg closed in May 2011 following litigation by local businesses who complained about the influx of migrants to the area. Lawyers for Human Rights, on behalf of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), an umbrella organization for local refugee and migrant rights groups, challenged the Department’s decision not to open a new RRO in a city which attracts the largest number of refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.
The court found that the decision had in fact been taken in line with a long-term government policy to eventually move all refugee reception services to the country’s borders, but that the lack of any public consultation on the matter had been unlawful.
Home Affairs’ attempts to close down another RRO in Port Elizabeth in November, also ostensibly due to complaints from local businesses, was again met with court action from local refugee rights groups. A December high court ruling required the department to continue providing services to holders of asylum-seeker and refugee permits pending a full hearing on the matter scheduled for February.
Move to the borders
In December, Amnesty International issued a statement registering its alarm at the decision to move all asylum services to ports of entry, noting that “such a move is likely to have a profoundly detrimental effect on the ability of applicants seeking international protection to pursue their claims effectively.”
Following pressure from civil society groups, the Home Affairs Department held a meeting with several NGOs on 21 December in which Lindile Kgasi, chief director of refugee affairs, elaborated on the Department’s intention to move all refugee reception services to the borders as part of a three-year roadmap for “effective and efficient processing and management of asylum-seekers and refugees”.
The roadmap schedules the first of two refugee reception centres to be established at border posts by 2013, with the remaining centres opening in 2014. According to CoRMSA Acting Director Roshan Dadoo, who was present at the meeting, Kgasi said the centres would carry out some initial screening of asylum-seekers for health and security purposes before admitting them into the country, but was vague on the degree of refugee status determination that would take place at the centres and whether asylum-seekers would be detained at borders.
According to Dadoo, Kgasi emphasized that although there were no current plans to detain refugees and asylum-seekers in camps, as many other countries in the region do, she did not rule out this possibility in the future if the current system continued to allow large numbers of economic migrants posing as asylum-seekers to be issued with permits.
“There’s no clarity from them,” commented Dadoo. “They’ve shown us this plan, but they’re not clear at all about what this means in the interim, and now suddenly it seems they’re not giving section 23s.”
A method of exclusion?
IRIN invited the Department of Home Affairs to comment on the non-issuance of section 23 permits, but up until the time of publishing they had not responded. However, Dadoo said CoRMSA had received many reports of asylum-seekers without travel documents not being issued with section 23 permits at borders, and that, with the exception of Cape Town, all RRO offices were turning away people who could not produce the permits.
Tina Ghelli, a spokesperson with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in South Africa, said that according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, an individual is not required to produce identification documents in order to apply for asylum and that UNHCR had raised the issue with Home Affairs.
David Cote of Lawyers for Human Rights pointed out that in terms of South Africa’s Refugees Act, a section 23 permit was also not a requirement for applying for asylum. “It seems to be a method they’re using to exclude people without dealing with the inefficiencies within the Department [of Home Affairs] which are part of the problem,” he told IRIN.
Cote added that the issuing of section 23 permits would in any case become virtually redundant once asylum-seekers were given only five days to report to an RRO, a change likely to be implemented from the beginning of April. As each office assigns only one day of the week to a particular nationality group, most applicants would need to wait up to a week to apply, even once they had managed to get themselves to one of only four remaining RROs in the country.
Another significant barrier exists in the form of endemic corruption at the RROs. At Marabastad, many of the asylum-seekers IRIN spoke to claimed it was almost impossible to get an asylum-seeker permit, otherwise known as a section 23, without paying bribes to officials and security guards.
“No one gets a permit without money,” said Halima, who was accompanying a recently arrived Somali woman suffering from malaria. “They give you a newspaper to put money in or they go to the bathroom and look for the money when they come back. Even me, I paid R2,000 (US$252) for a two-year permit.”
Halima’s friend had already been turned away from one hospital because of her lack of a permit, but a home affairs official saw her lying on the ground with little interest, claiming that he could not help her without the section 23 paper.
“These people are trying to fulfil their obligations according to the law, but the Immigration Act doesn’t provide them with alternatives to seeking asylum,” said Cote.