The government started closing the refugee reception centre in metropolitan areas last year, with plans to reopen the offices at border posts. The Department of Home Affairs has insisted that this will not impact the country’s commitments to protecting asylum seekers, but will instead help deal with South Africa’s bloated asylum system.
According to Alex Bell, human rights groups have warned that the closure of the offices is making it even harder for asylum seekers to apply for the protection that South Africa is committed to provide.
The government’s plan started with the closure of the Crown Mines office in Johannesburg in May 2011. This was closely followed by the closure of the Port Elizabeth refugee office in November 2011. Both these closures were challenged in the courts which have held that the decision to close these refugee offices was unlawful and have asked Home Affairs to revisit this decision.
According to Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, head of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, the closures and the decision to move asylum processing to the border areas “has caused considerable anxiety within the refugee community.”
“South Africa is disregarding its international obligations to protect refugees and these moves are counter-productive,” Ramjathan-Keogh said.
Lawyers for Human Rights said the new policy changes appear to be a “mechanism to avoid dealing with the real problems of a poor refugee status determination process and an inability to process claims within a reasonable time period coupled with the rampant corruption within the asylum system.”
These sentiments have been echoed by the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), which organized this week’s public protest calling for the closures to stop. Sicel’mpilo Shange-Buthane, CoRMSA’s Executive Director, told SW Radio Africa that South African authorities appear to be “making it as hard as possible for people to claim asylum.”
“We are very concerned about the actions of the authorities and what knock on effects these have for asylum seekers. It’s about denying the rights of people to asylum which is dictated by the Asylum Act… closing these offices already prejudices people who are in the country but have not yet applied for asylum,” said Shange-Buthane .
She also said that there are monthly reports of xenophobic attacks on foreigners in South Africa. “It sends a message that ‘these people are not needed’ and it is a dangerous message that promotes dangerous attitude and consequences,” Shange-Buthane warned.
According to figures released for World Refugee Day June 20, South Africa remains “the largest recipient of individual asylum applications (107,000), a status it has held for the past four years”. This includes an estimated three million or more Zimbabweans, who continue to face a serious threat if they are returned home.
But this threat has not prevented South Africa from lifting its moratorium on deportations and it’s understood that at least 14,000 Zimbabweans have been deported since last year.
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