Law change seeks to clear refugee backlog

Government hopes new legislation will allow it to clear a backlog of some 100 000 asylum applications, many of them likely to be unfounded, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba said today.

“We are confident that we should be able to eliminate the backlog. Part of the problem emanated from the rules,” Gigaba told reporters in Cape Town on the Refugees Amendment Bill, which seeks to improve and speed up the processing of applications.

He said an influx of economic migrants, who did not qualify for refugee status under international law, was clogging up the system. Many applicants were cynically exploiting its weaknesses to remain in South Africa.

“They seek to regularise their stay in South Africa through the asylum process. You listen to their case and you come to the determination that they have a manifestly unfounded case.

“Most of the people who apply for asylum are rejected and they appeal, and that is why the refugee appeals board sits with such large number of cases.”

He added: “They (the asylum seekers) know the time table of the Refugee Appeals Board is full for the next two years. All they wanted was just to stay here.”

The bill seeks to speed up the appeals process by decentralising it and removing the stipulation that applicants must be present at the appeal hearings.

Five additional members would be appointed to the Refugee Appeals Board (RAB) in November, and once the bill becomes law, an appeals body “with sufficient members” would be appointed for every refugee reception office in the country.

“Each office will have its own body dealing with appeals, which means that the files will not have to be compiled and sent to a central place. It should help us to ensure that we don’t generate new backlogs.”

Home affairs would also launch a programme to deal with the current backlog, he added.

At present, Gigaba said, the system was groaning under the sheer weight of applications because “you would have 8 000 appeals emanating from the Durban refugee office, and you have five people to deal with these cases”.

Many applicants realised that if they failed to present themselves for appeal hearings, the case would be postponed, buying them more time in South Africa, he added.

“We are now amending those rules so that the RAB listens to appeals on the basis of written submissions presented to it. We think it will expedite the process of dealing with appeals.”

Gigaba said South Africa currently had 42 000 refugees and was trying to process more than 100 000 applications for asylum.

The majority of the asylum seekers who came to South Africa in the recent past were Zimbabweans.

“The majority of those Zimbabweans were economic migrants, that is why we had quite a large number of rejections.”

He encouraged those living in South Africa illegally to take advantage of the government’s campaign to regularise their status, following the decision this winter to end the special dispensation for Zimbabweans after the political situation in the neighbouring state stabilised.

If they missed the December 31 deadline to apply, and instead insisted on seeking asylum status, they ran the risk of deportation, the deputy minister warned.

Gigaba said the new bill also passed responsibilities, that currently resided with the home affairs director general, on to the minister.

This included the power to declare somebody an indefinite refugee.

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