Xenophobia institutionalised

With a flourishing economy and more than a decade of relative political stability, it is no mystery why South Africa is being inundated by asylum seekers and economic migrants from across Africa.

It is estimated that between three million and five million refugees are now living in this country of about 50-million inhabitants, and many more desperately wait to gain access into one of the Refugee Reception Offices to regularise their status.

The xenophobic attacks against refugees in May 2008 have been widely covered and criticised in the press, but it seems that frustrated South African township dwellers are not the only obstacles in the plight of those who seek sanctuary within South Africa’s borders.

For those not aware of the proper procedures required for obtaining refugee status, the simplified version is as follows: Upon arrival in South Africa, one must apply for asylum, sit through an interview based on which one’s claim is determined and then wait for an answer from the status determination officer. If the answer is positive, the applicant is given a renewable residence permit. If, on the other hand, the application is rejected, which is the case all too often due to poorly conducted interviews and a lack of proper assessment of the claim, the applicant has a right to appeal against the decision within 30 days. That is, in theory.

Two recent cases highlight the difficulties that are plaguing this procedure. The applicants’ names have been changed for their safety, but their situations are real and shared by thousands of others.

Mr X hails from a Central African country where his family and friends had been persecuted and killed by the authorities for voicing their political opinions. Mr X’s application was rejected because during his interview the interpreter failed to explain to him what he must prove to be granted asylum in South Africa, in other words a “well-founded fear of persecution”.

After receiving this rejection, Mr X decided to exercise his right to appeal. For three weeks he has been making a daily visit to the Marabastad Refugee Reception Centre with that intention. In theory this involves walking into the centre and giving one’s appeal papers to the relevant secretary, who must then pass them on to the appeal board.

Sounds simple enough. Nevertheless, upon arrival, Mr X was made to join the general queue along with hundreds of newly arrived asylum seekers, and wait from dawn to dusk to no avail. Lawyers for Human Rights have recently reported that it takes an average of 22 days of waiting in the blistering sun and pounding rain to gain entry into the Marabastad office.

Moreover, those who have been successful claim that they spend at least 10 nights in the queue. As if this was not enough, over a third of those in the queue have reported being hurt, threatened or robbed by security guards, government officials, bystanders and other refugees. Must Mr X endure these appalling conditions for the second time in two years?

The short answer is yes, unless he is prepared to pay a bribe to the security guards at the gate and the officials behind the gate. This much was made clear to Mr X when the interpreter who was present at his initial interview made an unannounced visit to his temporary home and demanded the payment of R400 to facilitate the lodging of his appeal. Mr X is unemployed and could not secure this sum of money. His 30 days are running out quickly, after which he risks police harassment, detention and deportation. Last time I checked, the right to appeal against one’s status determination was officially free of charge.

Ms Y is an asylum seeker from East Africa. She fled her country with her uncle, who subsequently got refugee status in South Africa, but she did not, although their circumstances are identical. Does this mean that one’s right to asylum depends entirely on the goodwill of one’s determination officer?

Ms Y lodged an appeal against that decision; at least she thought she did. Depositing one copy of her appeal papers to the requisite office in Marabastad and sending an additional copy by post, Ms Y patiently awaited the appeal decision.

Patience, however, has a limit, and after a year of waiting, Ms Y enquired as to the status of her appeal. To her shock and horror, the officials at Home Affairs denied ever receiving her appeal papers, and having surpassed the 30-day limit she is now an illegal immigrant and liable to be deported to torture and imprisonment back home.

How could this happen? I called the man responsible for her case at Home Affairs and he explained to me that if Ms Y does not have a “receipt” testifying to her appeal, she did not appeal. I relayed this to Ms Y and she told me that the officer who took her papers simply told her to leave her papers with him and await the decision on her case.

Both of these cases cast a large shadow over the administration of the asylum system in South Africa. Granted there has been an influx of refugees from Zimbabwe in recent months, but does this really excuse the mismanagement of the queuing system, and the violence and extortion that ensue?

Does a person who simply seeks to exercise his constitutional right to challenge the decision of a determination officer have to be treated as a “probable economic migrant seeking to abuse the system?”

The more serious question to be posed is whether these two situations illustrate bureaucratic inefficiencies or whether they hide a darker truth. After all, this system is proving to be rather efficient at securing additional income for security guards and government officials, while at the same time restricting the number of applications having to be processed by Home Affairs.

These issues are not new, but in the wake of xenophobic attacks and the refugee influx, they are turning into a humanitarian catastrophe; only this catastrophe could be easily avoided with proper administration. Whether the powers that be are interested in avoiding it is another question.

Alexander Prezanti is from the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria

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