For asylum seekers, the long walk to freedom is still beyond reach

2018-04-12 10:15
The revamped Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Centre in Pretoria. (Lerato Sejake/News24)

The revamped Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Centre in Pretoria. (Lerato Sejake/News24)

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After losing everything, heavily pregnant Ana*, 34, was forced to leave her home and country. With nowhere to go, she and her husband embarked on an arduous five-day bus trip from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to South Africa.

The drive was an unending gamut of fear-inducing experiences, which included a four-hour long bus search by armed soldiers just before they passed the Congolese border.

Ana's sudden departure followed an incident with her husband, an artist in the DRC, who openly called the Congolese government "undemocratic" during a public performance.

They were forced to flee in the middle of the night out of fear that they would be targeted.

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Six years later, Ana finds herself curled up on a mattress in a crowded Musina shelter in Limpopo.

She is forced to travel by bus to Limpopo every three to six months to renew her asylum seeker permit following a decision by the director general of the Department of Home Affairs to no longer offer the service at the country’s second-busiest Refugee Reception Office (RRO) on Cape Town's Foreshore.

The pronouncement – which means that no new applicants for asylum could be processed in the Western Cape – was made in 2012, three days after Ana arrived in Cape Town.

Thousands of foreign nationals are now required to travel to the country's three other RROs in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Limpopo to renew their permits two to four times a year if they were not registered in Cape Town.

It will take at least a few days before Ana can renew her permit and begin the long journey back to her husband and two children in Cape Town.

Litigation against Home Affairs

"How can I save money to go to Musina again and again? How can I live a good life if I don’t have legal papers?" Ana asks.

"I just want people to know about my life in South Africa. How can you ask someone to travel as far as Musina, Pretoria or Durban to renew their papers?"

The Scalabrini Centre, an immigration rights advocacy organisation, initiated litigation against the Department of Home Affairs in 2013 to challenge the decision to close the Cape Town RRO.

People queuing at the Desmond Tutu Refugee Centre in Pretoria to renew their asylum-seeking papers. (Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro, GroundUp) 

Last year, the Supreme Court of Appeal echoed the Western Cape High Court's ruling that the decision to close the RRO was irrational.

The department has failed to comply with the court's order that the RRO be reopened by March 31.

And while the service remains withdrawn, Ana is forced to cough up R5 000 for every trek she has to make to Musina. She has to stay in a shelter because she doesn't have money to pay for a hotel room.

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"There were too many people in one room and I got sick," she recalls.

There is no direct bus route to Musina. The taxi drive from Pretoria to Musina is at least eight hours, Scalabrini Centre director Miranda Madikane explains.

It is very expensive for a large family because all dependents must be present when their permits are renewed.

Ana, however, cannot afford it.

Madikane says: "Some asylum seekers and their families might stay in local shelters, while others are forced to sleep in the open. They also risk losing their jobs.

"Further, Musina is considered very dangerous for newly-arrived asylum seekers who are subjected to crime and violence, due to their particularly vulnerable situation."

'Denying access to basic services'

Ana occasionally styles her neighbours' hair to keep their small family afloat, while her husband works as a security guard.

"You can't get a job in South Africa without papers," she says.

"I used to be a make-up artist for a big production company in the DRC, but I'm also a good hairstylist. It's difficult because friends and people from church want you to do it for free."

Asylum seekers gather outside the Foreshore office
Asylum seekers gather outside the Foreshore offices of Home Affairs in Cape Town. (Tariro Washinyira/GroundUp)

Other seemingly simple tasks, such as opening a bank account or buying a SIM card, are difficult without a South African ID.

"I can’t open a bank account, I can't get a house. When I went to the bank, they did not give me a good answer."

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The department has failed to send court-mandated progress reports to the Scalabrini Centre, Madikane says, and this inaction has forced her to take legal steps against them.

"I don't think the media needs to know what we're doing before we file the papers. I just took a look at the drafts from our legal counsel and the papers will be filed by the end of the week," Madikane says.

"What they are doing is damaging. They are denying access to basic services to thousands of refugees and that is unacceptable."

Several attempts to contact the Department of Home Affairs over a period of two weeks, via email and telephone have been unsuccessful.

Department spokesperson Thabo Mokgola promised to release a statement on the matter. However, the response did not materialise.

*Not her real name

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