How Home Affairs has been ignoring 2 court orders, putting asylum seekers at risk

Leigh Hamilton

In July 2012 the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) closed its Refugee Reception Office (RRO) in Cape Town. Despite two court orders to do so and devastating consequences for asylum seekers, it has failed to reopen the office.

The most recent court order of September 2017 mandated the DHA to reopen the RRO by March 31, 2018. Despite being in contempt of court, there is no indication from the DHA that they are working urgently to do this.

South Africa currently follows global best practice by allowing asylum seekers awaiting refugee status freedom of movement and the right to work. The more expensive and less humane alternative would be housing asylum seekers at camps.

Currently, asylum seekers must register at one of three RROs located in Durban, Musina and Pretoria. Asylum seekers are granted temporary permits, which must be frequently renewed (every three to six months). With the RRO in Cape Town closed, asylum seekers living in the Mother City must travel every few months to Durban, Musina or Pretoria (1 455km, 1 633km and 1 923km away from Cape Town, respectively).

The DHA is meant to process an asylum seeker's claim for refugee status within six months, but due to lack of resources and endemic corruption at the DHA, however, the process more often takes up to five years or more. This situation puts an enormous financial and emotional burden on asylum seekers, who cannot return to their homelands for fear of persecution or death.

For certain types of asylum seekers, such as unaccompanied minors, the disabled or the elderly, the journey is almost impossible. Many asylum seekers are forced to let their permits expire, which makes life here in South Africa even more difficult and dangerous for them. Without proper documentation, asylum seekers cannot open bank accounts, access health care at hospitals or register their children for schools. There are currently thousands of asylum seekers living in South Africa with expired permits.

This situation has also placed an enormous burden on the DHA. The DHA's decision to close two of its urban RROs (in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth) has crippled its ability to process asylum seekers' claims in a timely manner.

According to its 2016 Asylum Report for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the DHA still needs to process 697 298 section 22 cases. There is also currently an astounding backlog of asylum seekers appealing the DHA's decision to reject their refugee status claims – by the DHA's most recent assessment, there are 133 000 outstanding appeals.

If you count expired permits, the number is even higher. The remaining RROs are so overbooked that they are not taking enough new clients. The DHA only processed 35 000 claims for refugee status in 2016, about half of what it was able to accomplish in 2015. The DHA was also court ordered to reopen its RRO in Port Elizabeth in 2015, and it has yet to do so.

This arrangement is obviously unsustainable, and the South African courts agree. In 2013, the High Court ruled in favour of the Legal Resources Centre and the Scalabrini Centre for Cape Town, who took the DHA to court over the closing of the RRO in Cape Town. The High Court ruled the DHA's decision procedurally unlawful because it had failed to consult civil society on the matter, even though it had stated that it would.

The DHA subsequently consulted with civil society organisations, who warned the DHA about the dangers – both to the DHA and to asylum seekers in South Africa – of closing urban RROs. When the DHA refused to reopen the RRO, the Legal Resources Center, the Scalabrini Centre for Cape Town and the Somali Association of South Africa appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeal, where it won on substantive grounds.

As we pass the deadline for the DHA to reopen the RRO in Cape Town, it is important to remind the DHA and the South African public of the importance of legal accountability. South Africa's departments are in the process of rebuilding after years of state capture. The DHA is one of the country's lowest performing departments. Reopening the RRO in Cape Town presents an opportunity for the DHA to begin meaningful transformation.

No one stands more to lose from the DHA's contempt than the asylum seekers themselves. These are brave but vulnerable people who deserve recognition and support from government officials but more often deal with discrimination and abuse.

Civil society, in conjunction with Chapter Nine institutions and the courts, must do everything in their power to ensure that the DHA complies with its ruling to reopen the RRO in Cape Town. 

Follow the advocacy campaign of ALPS Resilience and other organizations on Twitter using #OpenRRO.

- Leigh Hamilton is a program officer for ALPS Resilience, a non-profit organisation that focuses on issues of forced migration and violence prevention in Africa.

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