Protecting the rights of refugees in the Western Cape

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Many Jews came to South Africa from Eastern Europe looking for a better life — escaping economic hardship, conscription into the Tzar’s army, pogroms and antisemitism.

Similarly, African asylum-seekers come to South Africa to escape persecution and have a well-founded fear for their safety, and the moment they flee their countries they are entitled to international protection and assistance.

As an organisation that works to protect the rights of minority rights, the Cape Board of Deputies has been working with other civic organisations to pressurise the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) to reopen the Refugee Reception Office (RRO) in Cape Town.
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 renewed every three to six months. With the RRO in Cape Town closed, asylum seekers living here must travel every few months to Durban, Musina or Pretoria (1455km, 1633km and 1923km 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.

Our ally organisation Sonke Gender Justice shared this update on the 4 April 2018:

Department of Home Affairs in breach of Supreme Court of Appeal order — again
In July 2012, the Department of Home Affairs closed the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office (CTRRO) for new asylum applications. The closure meant the CTRRO was no longer fully-functional and would operate only for those asylum-seekers who had lodged claims prior to the closure.

Asylum-seekers who arrived after the closure had to apply at the remaining RROs — Durban, Musina and Pretoria — and then return to the RRO of application for any further administration of their claims, including permit renewals. The practical reality thereof is that many have to travel very far distances (up to 2000km) every 1-6 months to renew their permits, which is costly — both financially and emotionally — places heavy burdens on families, and makes asylum-seekers vulnerable to abuse, sexual violence and extortion.

In September 2017, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) ordered the Department of Home Affairs to open a fully-functioning CTRRO for new asylum applications, citing the Department’s decision to close the second busiest Refugee Reception Office in South Africa as “irrational and unlawful”. The action was brought by Scalabrini, the Somali Association of South Africa and others and were represented by the Legal Resources Centre. The Court gave the Department until 31 March 2018 to re-open the CTRRO. It also instructed the Department to provide regular progress reports on how its preparations towards re-opening were advancing.
The Department has failed to provide any progress updates.

Throughout this period, various civil society organisations tried to engage the Department of Home Affairs to seek information and updates, but received none. On 27 March, representatives from human rights and migrant organisations staged a silent protest at the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs in Parliament to urge the Department to comply with the court order, while also embarking on a Count Down campaign to raise awareness of the number of days left before the SCA deadline.

Representatives from the Department eventually met with 11 civil society organisations on 28 March. This meeting arose out of an initial visit to the RRO in which we attempted to ascertain the readiness status of the RRO and was not part of the court process, nor the official progress report as ordered by the SCA. We were informed that the RRO would not be fully operational by 31 March, as it was now up to the Department of Public Works to secure premises, and that further questions pertaining to the re-opening should be referred to their Legal Services.

We reject the Department of Home Affairs’ reasoning for this delay, and their complete lack of accountability.
The Department is currently, and remains, in breach of the SCA order and is actively defying the rule of law.

As civil society organisations, we demand:
1.) that the Department of Home Affairs immediately opens fully-functional Refugee Reception Offices in Port Elizabeth and in Cape Town, following the court orders issued by the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2015 and 2017 respectively;
2.) for contempt of court proceedings to be urgently instituted against the Department, that the Department is appropriately fined, and that the Department of Home Affairs officials responsible for the contempt of court actions be cited in their personal capacities too, and to be held personally liable as per section 165(5) of the Constitution; and
3.) that the South African Human Rights Commission rigorously monitors and ensures that the CTRRO extends all available service as per the Refugees Act to new-comers, to asylum-seekers who applied at other RROs, and to asylum-seekers who wish to join their families in Cape Town, and that migrant rights are fully respected.

There is no doubt that the situation for asylum-seekers in our region is dire, follow our Facebook page for updates.

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