Refugee advocates in South Africa have reacted with dismay and scepticism to a planned revamp of the asylum application process which the government says is designed to distinguish economic migrants from people with a bona fide case for refugee status.
"The granting of asylum should not be contingent on an applicant's skills, economic circumstances, employment history or number of dependants," said Roni Amit, a senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Witwatersrand University, referring to a new 12-page asylum application form, which was published for comment in November.
The form includes detailed questions about education level, employment history and skills, including a request that applicants provide documentation in the form of testimonials and pay slips. There is also a new section on financial status that asks for details of bank accounts inside and outside South Africa and how much money the applicant has brought into the country.
The aim of such questions "is to separate economic migrants from people seeking asylum," said Mayihlome Tshwete, the department of home affairs spokesperson.
"Our refugee system is being heavily burdened by economic migrants," he told IRIN. "There are people who are genuinely in fear of their lives, and their applications are not getting the attention [they deserve]."
South Africa was the third most popular destination for asylum seekers in 2013 (Germany and the US took the two top spots) with 70,000 new asylum applications, according the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This was down from previous years when it was the leading destination, but it has still left the department with a significant backlog. According to UNHCR, over 86,600 cases were yet to receive a first decision by the end of 2013, while a further 145,400 were awaiting appeal decisions at the end of 2012.
However, refugee rights groups have questioned whether the new form is the best way of addressing the backlog.
Amit pointed out that under both international and domestic refugee law, asylum determinations should be based solely on establishing whether individuals face a well-founded fear of persecution or general conditions of instability in their country of origin.
She added that asylum seekers fleeing for their lives were unlikely to have taken any documentation proving their previous employment with them.
UNHCR, in a submission it is preparing to send to Home Affairs, will call for the new form to be simplified. "A lot of the information that they've put there is not needed to take a decision on the merits of a refugee claim," said UNHCR spokesperson Tina Ghelli. "We feel that most asylum seekers wouldn't be able to provide that level of detail. We've offered our technical guidance to help them improve the form."
In recent years, refugee reception offices in several cities have either closed or stopped accepting new asylum applications. As a result, new asylum seekers must join long queues at the three remaining offices where they can submit claims - in Pretoria, Durban and Musina (near the border with Zimbabwe).
Asylum seekers only have five days to submit their applications after entering the country before they become undocumented and vulnerable to arrest and detention.
Amit noted that asylum seekers already struggle to fill out the existing form and that the new form is likely to increase the barriers to accessing the asylum system.
"It's going to be much harder with translation to have to fill out this new form; I think it will be very difficult for many people to complete honestly," agreed Roshan Dadoo, regional advocacy officer at the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA). She added that the result could be a further clogging up of the appeals process which is where most of the backlog in the system already exists.
Dadoo raised concerns about other additions to the new form, such as questions about how the applicant entered South Africa, whether they received any assistance and who they travelled with.
"It looks as though they're aimed at trying to identify smuggling operations," she told IRIN, adding that naming travelling companions could prejudice those individuals' asylum claims.
Home Affairs spokesperson Tshwete insisted that the capturing of additional information through the new form would help reduce abuse of the system. "We've discovered that only 5 percent of applicants are actually asylum seekers," he said. "The best thing to help the backlog is to get economic migrants out of the system. We need to encourage [them] to apply for work permits from their country of origin."
The figure that 95 percent of asylum applicants are actually economic migrants is based on South Africa's rejection rates which hover between 85 and 97 percent, significantly higher than the global average of 68 percent, according to UNHCR.
Status determination process flawed?
But Amit, who has researched South Africa's refugee status determination process extensively, argued that "the rejection rate in no way presents an accurate reflection of who is in the asylum system because the status determination process is so flawed."
"An individual's actual asylum claim has almost no relationship to the decision he or she will actually get... So while 95 percent of people are rejected, that doesn't mean that 95 percent of them don't have valid asylum claims."
She added that the new questions about skills, education and financial situation also have no bearing on whether or not someone is a genuine asylum seeker, "as an asylum seeker can be rich or poor, educated or uneducated, highly skilled or not...
"It seems more likely that what it will do is just weed out the poor, unskilled asylum seekers, who will just get labelled as economic migrants regardless of any asylum claim they may have."
It remains unclear to what extent the Home Affairs Department will take on board the comments from UNHCR, ACMS and other refugee rights groups before implementing the new form, or how refugee status determination officers will be instructed to use the new information it captures. "If you're a genuine asylum seeker, your economic situation won't matter [in terms of adjudication]," said Tshwete.
However, both Amit and Dadoo expressed concerns about how information that falls outside the legal criteria for determining refugee status would be used.
"Why would you ask for that information unless you needed it for the matter at hand?" asked Dadoo.