'This is a national embarrassment': Cape Town refugee office under fire again

05 June 2018 - 16:20 By Nora Shelly
The queue at the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office in Cape Town on Tuesday.
The queue at the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office in Cape Town on Tuesday.
Image: Nora Shelly

As he waited outside the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office on Tuesday‚ a man seeking to renew his permit said conditions at the office had deteriorated over the 14 years he had been in South Africa.

“It’s pathetic‚” said the man‚ who declined to give his name.

He was one of dozens of people queueing at Customs House on the Foreshore‚ which has been at the centre of a legal battle over the Department of Home Affairs’ decision to close the office to new applicants in 2012.

Last September‚ the Supreme Court of Appeal ordered the department to reopen the office. The Constitutional Court dismissed an appeal‚ telling home affairs to have the office fully reopened by March 31. It has yet to do so.

The DA home affairs spokesman‚ Haniff Hoosen‚ who visited the office on Tuesday‚ said it was a mess‚ with unsuitable office equipment‚ poor facilities‚ long queues and lack of security.

“There are... hundreds of people sitting in there‚ all of whom are very desperate and under a lot of pressure and frustrated by waiting for so many hours‚” he said. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Hoosen said Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba should answer to the parliamentary portfolio committee for why the office had not yet fully reopened to new applicants.

Home affairs spokesman Mayihlome Tshwete said the department was working with the Department of Public Works to find a suitable building. “Home Affairs doesn’t have the power to go and occupy a building‚” he said.

Hoosen pointed to other issues with the refugee office‚ saying its treatment of refugee and asylum seekers is xenophobic.

“The manner in which our government is treating people‚ from especially African countries‚ is just really‚ really sad‚ and it’s an embarrassment to who we are‚” he said.

His assessment was echoed by Tendai Bhiza‚ who came to South Africa from Zimbabwe in 2004 to seek asylum. She said at one point she had to make up excuses to get into the building‚ then had to sneak around until she found the proper office.

“For us to enter that door‚ it was like a gold mine‚” said Bhiza‚ who now works with the NGO People Against Suffering‚ Oppression and Poverty‚ which campaigns for the rights of refugees‚ asylum seekers and immigrants.

Tshwete criticised Hoosen for taking his concerns to the media before going through the portfolio committee.

“If we really want to make a long-lasting solution to the problem‚ let’s make progress on the real issues‚” he said.