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in South Africa: Denied Access to Political Asylum
July 14, 2004
Advocates Sarah Martin and Andrea Lari just returned from a three-week
assessment mission to Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Africa is denying access to political asylum to thousands of Zimbabweans
seeking to escape persecution. Of the 5,000 applications for political
asylum filed by Zimbabweans to date, fewer than 20 Zimbabweans have actually
received political asylum in South Africa. But more troubling still is
the fact that few Zimbabweans are able even to apply for political asylum.
The South African
government office that handles immigration, Department of Home Affairs
(DHA), has five Refugee Reception Offices in the country. There are two
offices close to the Zimbabwe border. The largest office, in a shopping
center in the Rosettenville section of Johannesburg, has been moved and
closed repeatedly since October 2003. There are no signs identifying the
office, but it is easy to find if one looks for the hundreds of people
clustered in an alley trying to gain access. Asylum seekers sleep overnight
to get a good place in line and queue for hours. One asylum seeker told
Refugees International, "This is the third time Iíve been hereÖ Iíve never
been in, you just wait in line."
While DHA has acknowledged
its problems and is working on a "turnaround strategy," in the words of
DHA Director General, Mr. Barry Gilder, it "still has a long way to go."
All of the offices are woefully understaffed, resulting in a backlog of
up to 80,000 cases waiting to be reviewed. DHA claims that Zimbabweans
do not face more barriers than asylum seekers of other nationalities,
but that is contrary to the direct observations of RI. A Zimbabwean told
us that he lined up at 11 a.m. the day before the office opened so he
could be first in line. "They only took one Zimbabwean that day. I was
number two." While the senior management of the Immigration Department
acknowledged to RI that Zimbabweans have the right to be considered refugees,
Refugee Reception officers were unable to state whether or not Zimbabweans
had the right to political asylum in South Africa. Staff in the Reception
Office told RI that Zimbabweans were not a priority because "there is
no civil war in Zimbabwe, so there is no reason to apply." Other Zimbabweans
told us they were denied access to the process because they did not have
valid passports. Even the UN agency in charge of refugees could not agree.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in South Africa
was also unable to provide a clear determination as to whether Zimbabweans
qualify for asylum. They told RI that they were waiting clarification
themselves from Geneva.
Corruption is widespread
within the Department of Home Affairs and the South African Police Services.
RI interviewed people who told of being asked for a bribe merely to receive
a letter giving them an appointment to present their asylum claim. Police
officers ask for bribes to look the other way when rounding up undocumented
asylum seekers or those whose temporary permit of stay has expired. One
Zimbabwean told us, "I was stopped while walking down the street. The
policeman asked for my papers but told me that for 200 Rand [U$33] he
would not deport me." At the Lindela detention center, bribes are demanded
for release, while deportees can also pay to jump from the "deportation
train" on the way back to Zimbabwe.
In 2003, over 100
Zimbabwean asylum seekers were unlawfully detained in the Lindela Detention
Center. Zimbabweans comprise the second largest group of deportees. Most
are repatriated without ever having seen an immigration official. According
to organizations that work in Lindela, there are very few immigration
officers who work in the facility. "On any given day there may be
between two and zero for a facility that holds up to 5,000 people."
There is no Refugee
Reception Officer in Musina, a town that rests on the major thoroughfare
between South Africa and Zimbabwe. If an asylum seeker were to request
to apply, they would be directed to go to Pretoria or Johannesburg, over
five hours away. No transportation would be provided. RI interviewed Zimbabweans
along the border who told us of being arrested and immediately dropped
over the border without any contact with immigration officials. Police
and Army in the border regions rely on spurious methods to identify Zimbabweans,
such as asking questions in a South African language or checking which
arm bears a smallpox scar. According to an NGO working in Musina, "The
police have no training. Some people are being deported because [Zimbabweans]
therefore, recommends that:
- The Government
of South Africa earmark and disburse more funds to DHA in order to staff
and equip the Refugee Reception Offices in Pretoria and Johannesburg.
- DHA immediately
form a task force to address the backlog of pending political asylum
cases and prioritize interviews with Zimbabwe political asylum seekers.
- DHA continue to
root out corruption among its officials and implement their Counter-Corruption
- DHA increase the
number of immigration officers in the Lindela Deportation Center and
ensure that there are always immigration officers on duty.
- DHA establish a
Refugee Reception Office in Musina as soon as possible. In the meantime,
they should increase capacity of passport control officers at the border
to issue temporary permits to asylum seekers.
- South African Police
Services institute measures to address corruption at all levels and
train all relevant staff in the proper handling of political asylum
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