NGO sends scathing letter to Cyril Ramaphosa on treatment of refugees
The alleged abuse and poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees by the Department of Home Affairs has been highlighted in an open letter sent to President Cyril Ramaphosa by Lawyers for Human Rights‚ to mark world refugee day on Wednesday.
The non-governmental organisation (NGO) alleges that the department through its "very many harmful‚ unlawful and cruel practices and policies" disregards the values of the constitution and the country's law and fails to comply with the United Nations' and African Union's conventions on refugees‚ which South Africa signed after the fall of apartheid.
It claims that the situation has deteriorated since the return of Home Affairs minister Malusi Gigaba to the position earlier this year.
The abuses dealt with in the letter include the unlawful refusal to renew permits; the unlawful denial of the right to apply for asylum; ignoring the best interests of the child; disregarding court orders; denial of the constitutional right to dignity and family life; and detention.
Lawyers for Human Rights argues that there is a crisis in the department in its management of asylum seekers and that it has failed monumentally to comply with the Refugees Act and international conventions. It says the department is "cripplingly inefficient (and) poorly managed with reports of widespread bribery and corruption". It alleges that ordinary asylum seekers are treated “like dogs"; spoken to dismissively‚ pushed and shoved‚ told to “go back to your country” and “there is no war in Syria” and subjected to endless requests for bribes before they are assisted.
The letter notes that there are hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers whose applications for refugee status have not been finalised after many years and that South Africa reportedly has the largest backlog in the world.
"Many have been in South Africa for more than 5‚ 10 or 15 years and longer‚" it says. Asylum seekers have to return regularly to refugee reception offices - often very far away - to have their permits extended while waiting year after year for the final decision.
Since Gigaba’s return‚ the refugee reception offices have expanded a practice already declared unlawful by the courts‚ namely that of repeatedly turning asylum seekers away with an extension date‚ giving them “appointment slips” or date-stamps on the back of their permit for a week or two months later. The effect was that they walked around with outdated permits and became undocumented "at risk of arrest and deportation and extremely vulnerable to widespread corruption and bribes by officials".
The Lawyers for Human Rights' letter also noted that since 2017 new asylum seekers who arrived in the country without passports were being unlawfully denied the right to apply for asylum and were left undocumented and unrecorded. Passports were often impossible to obtain in circumstances of flight and war.
Regarding children the NGO said that there are thousands of children who‚ as dependents of their parents‚ are automatically entitled to be documented as refugees or asylum seekers‚ yet were repeatedly‚ sometimes for years‚ not assisted.
"There is also a new trend‚ despite alternative verification processes‚ of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) insisting on expensive DNA testing to prove parenthood‚ which leaves children undocumented as the parent does not have the funds to pay for the test. Many schools‚ pressured by the DHA‚ insist on children being documented and this causes great stress for the children concerned.
"There are also children who have fled war zones‚ or lost their parents en route or in South Africa‚ who are unaccompanied‚ or separated or orphaned and who are turned away at the refugee office because they are unaccompanied and minors. A High Court ruling in 2013 which held that children must first and foremost be documented by the DHA has never been implemented and the matter remains on appeal."
The letter also highlights the fact that many of the department's practices have been declared unlawful and unconstitutional by the High Court. Court orders were also ignored‚ as in the cases of the High Court ordering the reopening of the refugee reception offices in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
A further allegation is that the department has refused to allow asylum seekers their constitutional right to marry and has taken a court ruling that this policy is unconstitutional on appeal.
Since Gigaba’s return‚ an "inhumane policy" had been reimplemented when asylum seekers received their final decision. This involved the immediate arrest and detention of the individual if the application was rejected. Lawyer for Human Rights said that up until Gigaba’s return‚ the DHA issued immigration notices to depart in such situations‚ giving a rejected asylum seeker 14 days to find legal representation to appeal the decision at the High Court or to make plans to depart the country.
It appeared that people were wrongfully and unlawfully detained under the current immigration legislation. A number of reports over the years had higlighted the ill-treatment of detainees.
Lawyers for Human Rights said the DHA was using detention and deportation as "an inhumane tool to manage migration in South Africa".
It noted that 96 out of every 100 asylum applications were rejected‚ many on the grounds that they were fraudulent as the applicants were deemed to be “economic migrants” and not refugees as they claimed.
But the NGO said that asylum seekers who sought refuge in South Africa came predominantly from countries known for human rights abuses and/or countries with serious civil disorder - the Democratic Republic of Congo‚ Burundi‚ Somalia‚ Eritrea‚ Ethiopia‚ Syria‚ South Sudan.
"Many decisions also disturbingly reflect that Africa appears to have no conflicts at all‚" the letter to Ramaphosa said.