Refugee rights organizations in Cape Town are breathing a sigh of relief following a high court judgement that will force the Department of Home Affairs to reverse a policy of not accepting new asylum-seeker applications at the region’s only Refugee Reception Office (RRO).
Since the beginning of July, when the Maitland RRO in Cape Town moved to new premises, newly-arrived refugees trying to apply for asylum have been turned away and only those wanting to renew asylum seeker permits have been assisted. Maitland was the third RRO to be closed by Home Affairs in two years, leaving just three offices in Durban, Pretoria and Musina near the Zimbabwean border, where refugees can apply for asylum.
On entering the country, asylum seekers are given 14 days to report to an RRO and apply for an asylum seeker permit after which they are considered undocumented migrants and subject to arrest, detention and deportation.
Refugee rights activists complain that the closure of the RRO in Johannesburg in May 2011 and another in Port Elizabeth in November 2011 followed by the Cape Town office were part of a broader strategy by the government to restrict migration and reduce the country’s caseload of asylum seekers which is one of the world’s largest.
Over the past year, the Home Affairs Department has repeatedly stated its intention to move all refugee reception services to the country’s borders, most recently in a discussion document published by the ruling ANC party ahead of its national elective conference to be held in December. However, no such facilities have yet been built at the borders and the pressure on the remaining RROs has meant that asylum seekers and refugees are regularly turned away without accessing services.
“It seems all decisions are being made based on a policy [to move all RROs to the borders] that hasn’t been approved yet,” commented Miranda Madikane, director of the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, a refugee rights organization that filed the urgent high court application to force the Western Cape Home Affairs Department to resume services for newly-arrived asylum seekers. “The move to the border could be logical but it needs to be done in such a way that it’s supported by infrastructure.”
The Scalabrini Centre and other refugee organizations in Cape Town have been at a loss how to help newly-arrived asylum seekers in need of documentation since the Maitland RRO closed. Most were unaware they could not apply for asylum in Cape Town and lack the resources to travel to Durban, Pretoria or Musina.
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“Home Affairs promised a communication campaign at the border, but our partners there haven’t noted one,” said Madikane.
Jacob Matakanye of the Musina Legal Advice Office confirmed that there had been no campaign to raise awareness about the closure of the Maitland office. He added that most asylum seekers preferred not to apply for permits in Musina because of the need to return to the remote border town every time their permit was due for renewal.
The judgement in Cape Town follows two similar judgements in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, both of which found that the closure of RROs had been implemented unlawfully and without public consultation. In February, the Port Elizabeth High Court ordered Home Affairs to reopen a fully functioning RRO with immediate effect. An attempt to appeal the judgement was rejected in May, but according to David Stephens of the Eastern Cape Refugee and Migrant Programme, the RRO in Port Elizabeth is still not serving newly-arrived asylum seekers.
“We’ve been telling everyone to go to Cape Town, but now Cape Town’s been closed,” he told IRIN.
Braam Hanekom, director of People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), another Cape Town-based refugee rights organization was optimistic that Home Affairs would implement the judgement relating to Cape Town’s refugee reception services. “If we’d lost, it would have been disastrous,” he said.