A rocky road for Cape Town’s refugees
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
The number of illegal refugees in Cape Town is increasing after the government closed a city-based office granting permits for asylum seekers to work and study in South Africa.
The home affairs department earlier this year closed the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office (RRO) at Customs House on the Foreshore. The RRO had registered newly arrived asylum seekers and granted them necessary documents that had to be renewed every few months.
The department decided in June 2012 already that it would close the RRO and since then appeals to keep it open ensued. But all of this came to an end earlier this year when the department’s director-general Mkuseli Apleni closed the matter.
Apleni said there was no need for this office in Cape Town as many foreigners were in fact economic migrants and not asylum seekers.
His decision has meant that all newly arrived refugees in Cape Town would have to travel to three other RROs, located in Durban, Musina and Pretoria.
As this decision took effect from June 30 2012, any refugee who arrived in the city after that and who had not yet registered also needed to travel to other RROs for their paperwork.
Refugees from various African countries with conflict this week recounted the difficulties of obtaining legal status as a result of the RRO closure in Cape Town.
Caroline Mutimbanyoka from Zimbabwe has a work permit and is a counselor with the Observatory-based Adonis Musati Project.
Mutimbanyoka said refugees who arrived in Cape Town after June 2012 are not allowed to renew their permits in this city. She said this led to many being unable to travel to other cities to renew their permits.
“They don’t have money for themselves or their families to travel to other cities. The result has been that a lot of refugees arrested and deported,” she said.
“I know refugees who were deported to Zimbabwe. But through illegal means they came back to South Africa. Their situation in Zimbabwe is unbearable. They come back here to work and support their families.”
Genevieve Kabayza, a refugee from Rwanda, said she knew of illegal refugees who were hiding from the police.
“They are not safe. They are scared of being put in prison or deported. I know of refugees who were arrested. I also know someone who is a car guard and he hides away every time he sees a policeman. He’s scared of being arrested,” she said.
“Without permits we can’t get jobs, help at clinics, our children can’t go to school. Refugees who won’t have money (to travel to RROs in other cities) will stay in Cape Town without documents. To survive, some of them will join gangs and do crime.”
Augustine Muyambo, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, confirmed that most refugees do not have money to travel to other cities to renew their permits every few months.
“Most of us, to find a job, have to renew our papers every three months and we have to travel far. We don’t have money to get there. Where will you sleep when you get there? What will you eat?” she asked.
“Each person in your family must go (to the RRO). You have to take the kids out of school. It affects our husbands when they must work. Husbands can’t ask all the time to go to home affairs.”
She added: “Refugees want to work but they don’t have permits. Without that, employers can exploit them. They don’t pay them on time and they pay them very little.”
An asylum seeker permit allows refugees to work and study in South Africa.
Kathryn Hoeflich, director of the non-profit Cape Town Refugee Centre (CTRC) in Wynberg, said they were “particularly concerned when a family has to choose between food and traveling across the country to renew a permit”.
“This means taking children out of school, possibly sleeping in terrible conditions outside of the open RROs where they may have to stay for a week or more to gain access to renew their permit,” she added.
“When individuals simply cannot afford to do this, they may not renew their permit which means they are subject to arrest or they may struggle to access critical services.
“They are then subject to fines for having expired documents. Basically this boils down to punishing someone for being too poor to travel.”
Hoeflich said criminals have “started making fake permits at comparatively low cost”.
“This forces good and otherwise law-abiding people to choose between putting themselves and families at great risk and financial burden or breaking the law,” she said.
“A vulnerable person is put in a more vulnerable position and is prevented from fulfilling their obligation to register and apply for asylum legitimately.”
Hoeflich said NGOs have “tried offering solutions or recommendations to home affairs to help address this issue in a more humane and logical way”.
Home affairs spokesman Mayihlome Tshwete said the Western Cape currently had 42,467 legally registered refugees. Nationally, the department puts this figure at 72,000 refugees.
The department had not registered any new refugees since June 30 2012, he said. Tshwete said refugees mostly “enter through the country’s northern land ports” and thus the RROs needed to be focus on registering new arrivals in those areas only.
Home affairs responds…
Home affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni said the department closed the Refugee Reception Office (RRO) in Customs House on the Foreshore because of “nuisance concerns” from neighbours.
He said the department had “already been threatened with litigation… and runs the risk that neighbours and interested persons will institute legal proceedings should a fully functional RRO be opened at Customs House”.
“There are also occupational health and safety as well as security concerns at Customs House,” he added.
Apleni said Customs House “cannot accommodate large numbers of people”.
Home affairs could meanwhile not open an office elsewhere, despite having “conducted extensive searches for alternative premises, which have not been successful”.
“The previous difficulties faced in securing suitable premises, the time frames and complexities involved in the procurement process and the additional resources that would need to be deployed to ensure the previous nuisance concerns do not arise, are all factors that have contributed to my decision not to maintain a RRO in Cape Town or the Western Cape,” said Apleni.
He added: “The majority of asylum seekers who previously applied were not genuine asylum seekers, but economic migrants who came to Cape Town in search of work. Economic migrants are exploiting South Africa’s legislative framework and refugee services.
“They have been able to move to Cape Town and obtain work while the asylum application process has taken its course.”
“Government is entitled to take steps to control the asylum application process, including taking steps to restrict access to RROs in urban areas where access to RROs has historically been abused by economic migrants.
“While taking such steps may result in hardship to some genuine asylum seekers, this hardship must be considered in light of government’s legitimate need to regulate the asylum application process and access to RROs.
“The department’s records show that very few of the asylum seekers who utilised the services… entered South Africa through Cape Town’s two ports of entry (Cape Town harbour and Cape Town International Airport). The department’s records indicate that fewer than 10 persons per month entered through the above ports of entry during the period 2008 and 2012.
“The vast majority of applicants… entered the country through borders in the north of the country.
“The small number of asylum seekers who enter the country through Cape Town mitigates against maintaining a fully functional RRO in Cape Town.
“I am of the opinion that the three remaining RROs in Musina, Durban and Pretoria are sufficient to serve the needs of asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa and the purposes of the Refugees Act.
“Significantly, the department’s records show that the number of asylum seekers in South Africa has decreased over the last few years.”