UNHCR commissioner asks SA to preserve system for refugees, asylum seekers

09 February 2024 - 21:12 By TimesLIVE
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UNHCR assistant high commissioner for protection Ruven Menikdiwela.
UNHCR assistant high commissioner for protection Ruven Menikdiwela.
Image: UNHCR

The UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection Ruven Menikdiwela has appealed to South Africa to maintain its commitment to upholding fundamental human rights by remaining party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

The assistant high commissioner of the UN refugee agency also called on the government to lead the promotion of tolerance and social cohesion towards refugees and migrants, as the country approaches the national elections.

Menikdiwela concluded a five-day visit to the country on Friday after a visit to Beitbridge, one of the country's busiest ports of entry on the border with Zimbabwe, on Wednesday and Thursday.

Earlier this week, Menikdiwela, who was in South Africa on her first official visit since her appointment in January this year, met home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi in Pretoria.

Discussions focused on reviewing the various migration routes to South Africa and how best to strengthen the protection space for asylum seekers and refugees in the country. 

Menikdiwela referred to the government's White Paper on Citizenship, Immigration and Refugee Protection.

The white paper was made public last November with an invitation for comments by January 31 on, notably, the proposal by South Africa to withdraw from the 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and to later re-enter with reservations on some critical articles on the convention, including possible employment and access to education.

She said this was of great concern. 

“South Africa has attempted to respond to the arrivals of foreign nationals on its territory through the White Paper, but withdrawing from the Refugee Convention and reacceding with reservations will not provide the immediate, practical solutions that the government is seeking.

“As UNHCR we suggest concrete solutions, such as the route-based approach, where we are not looking at countries of destination in isolation but at the entire migratory route — from the countries of origin to the countries of transit and to the countries of destination,” Menikdiwela said. 

She said the UNHCR was ready to work with the government and other humanitarian agencies to look at how to provide effective responses to migratory and refugee movements along these routes.

c also met commissioner of the Border Management Authority Mike Masiapato and his team at the Beitbridge border post. She assured them of UNHCR's readiness to support their efforts to manage their borders in a way that took into consideration the specific needs and rights of people seeking asylum. 

South Africa hosts about 154,000 refugees and asylum seekers, representing 0.2 % of the country's total population of 60.6 million people.

While acknowledging the country's understandable concerns about perceived challenges around irregular migration and people entering the country without prior authorisation or valid documentation — issues shared by many countries around the world — the UNHCR stressed that people had the right to seek asylum and be protected from expulsion from the country. 

Menikdiwela said Masiapato agreed, stating: “Migration is to be managed but not to be stopped.” 

Menikdiwela said the UNHCR was also investing in a project with the government and co-funded by the EU to reduce the backlog of asylum appeals to make decision-making on them more efficient.

To date, 131, 282 asylum claims must still to be processed by the Refugee Appeal Authority.


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