'Money for papers' at home affairs

Immigrants queue from the early hours of the morning in Marabastad in downtown Pretoria to apply or reapply for their asylum permits. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Immigrants queue from the early hours of the morning in Marabastad in downtown Pretoria to apply or reapply for their asylum permits. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

On any given weekday somewhere between 500 and well over a thousand people line up at the Marabastad office of the department of home affairs, on the fringes of downtown Pretoria, to be processed for paperwork to confirm or reconfirm their status as asylum seekers or refugees in South Africa.

Before they leave again, according to research published this week, about half of them will have paid at least one bribe to secure those all-important papers. In fact, many of them will return to the office, on average three times to deal with a single issue, and end up paying several bribes along the way.

The individual payments will be small, maybe a few hundred rands each. But thanks to the sheer scale of the operation those small payments will combine to see tens of thousands of rands corruptly change hands every day at this single office.

Multiplied across the refugee system and over time, that equates to a river of money millions of rands wide, with the single purpose of subverting the system put in place to control the flow of migrants into South Africa at a time when that is a particularly hot political topic.

“Even as the government continues to point to the scourge of economic migrants abusing the asylum system, it does little to combat the corruption that enables individuals without protection needs to claim asylum while denying protection to the system’s intended beneficiaries,” writes researcher Roni Amit in the report Queue Here for Corruption: Measuring Irregularities in South Africa’s Asylum System, released by Lawyers for Human Rights and the African Centre for Migration and Society on Wednesday.

Corruption can easily spread
And though South Africans tend to disregard predation on foreigners, Amit warns, they do so at their peril in an environment where corruption in one department can easily spread into another, thus creating “a system of governance lacking in predictability, accountability, equality, and fairness – a system where legal guarantees do not dictate government behaviour”.

The report draws on interviews with 928 refugees or asylum seekers at five home affairs reception centres. Although the Marabastad office ranked as the most corrupt, the study found “corruption at multiple stages of the asylum application process” across every office and every demographic.

In total, across South Africa nearly a third of the foreigners interviewed reported experiencing corruption and personally making payments to security guards, police, interpreters, “private brokers” and, in some cases, home affairs officials.

The payments bought access at the border, freedom from queuing, which can take days, new permits, the renewal of permits and avoiding detention or fines for expired permits. Some said they were given no choice but to make the payments, others that they paid after finding themselves rebuffed at the first instance.

Only 3% ever made any attempt to report the corruption.

‘Criminal offence’
Inside the Marabastad office, tattered posters warn officials that “accepting a bribe or cold drink money is a criminal offence”.

The home affairs department has often committed itself to rooting out corruption and has made some progress, evidenced by cases such as the arrest this month of an assistant director. But prosecuting individual cases will not change “the conditions that allow corruption to continue largely unchecked”, Amit found.

These range from simple mechanics, such as the lack of electronic numbering in queues or forms that state which fees are payable, to the conflict between a progressive policy on asylum seekers but a system that cannot handle the resulting flood of applicants for asylum.

Home affairs agrees with some of these points – although it does not agree that it is failing systemically to combat corruption.

“The problem with criticism of this nature is that it comes from a distance, without understanding how seriously we take corruption,” said spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete. “These high-profile cases [of prosecution] you see don’t happen organically; they are a result of our strategy.”

Anti-corruption operations that seek the weaknesses in the systems and the syndicates exploiting them is one front in the fight, Tshwete  said. The second is a push to modernise systems to ensure a full electronic audit trial for all documents. Both measures are showing results and promise more in future.

But without a change in policy or in the requirements for administration – such as the obligation to accommodate everyone claiming asylum, even those who are clearly economic migrants rather than fleeing persecution – the only solution to the underlying problem would be a large commitment of money.

“In the European Union they call it a crisis when they have 100 000 refugees, and that is several countries in that union,” said Tshwete. “We deal with that many people in a year without the kind of resources the EU has.”

Something has to give, and it is more likely to be South Africa’s progressive, warm-welcome attitude towards foreigners than a sudden commitment of money to deal with processing them.

“In recent years, South African citizens have benefited from improvements in the civic services section of [home affairs],” Amit writes.

“This has decreased the focus on the problems inside the department. Most citizens are not invested in the level of service provided to foreigners, nor are elected officials who are responsive to their domestic constituencies.”

Or, as a security official outside the Marabastad office put it this week: “Nobody wants to spend money helping foreigners because we have our own problems. If we spent money on foreigners, people will get angry and there will be more violence against foreigners, so that will not help them.”

Criminals prey on vulnerable asylum seekers

The private security guards inside and police officials outside the home affairs department’s Marabastad refugee reception office find it amusing – in the bitterest sort of way – to hear their charges described as the victims of corruption.

Are migrants and asylum seekers taken advantage of? Certainly, and daily. But from their point of view, the biggest threat one foreigner faces on their premises is another foreigner.

“You will say I am lying if I tell you what happens here,” said one official this week. “Here we are at war every day.”

The grounds of the office and its surrounds represent a target-rich environment for those of a criminal bent. On a quiet day there will be somewhere between 400 and 500 people in various queues, many of them confused and most of them vulnerable. They come as individuals or in small groups, and sometimes have no language in common with those ahead and behind them. There is a certain grim solidarity born from shared suffering, but everyone is ultimately looking out for him- or herself.

“If the person in front of me gets stabbed today, there is one person less in front of me,” joked one Zimbabwean on Tuesday. Another told how he had walked past what he presumed to be a street robbery in progress on his way to the home affairs office on a previous occasion and had kept walking, eyes averted.

The people in the queues almost universally deal in cash as they lack the paperwork that would give them access to electronic means of payment, and can at times carry large amounts of money. One woman confided that she had just under R10 000 concealed about her person, all the money her family had, because she had nowhere safe to leave it.

Guards and police are stretched thin and nobody, not even the police themselves, believe in their ability to bring to book those who prey on the foreigners.

“If you catch someone here, you need a complainant in the case,” said one officer stationed in the vicinity.

“Tonight that complainant has to sleep somewhere, and that tsotsi has friends. People say to us they are afraid, or they say to us they don’t have their papers yet and we will arrest them, then there is no case any more.”

The result is an imaginative array of crimes, from straightforward muggings to elaborate street cons. Asylum seekers are separated from their documents, which are then ransomed back to them. The visibly impatient are lured away with the implied promise that they will be speeded on their way by corrupt means, and robbed. But it is the pickpockets, which local legend has practising their skills for hours every day, who take the biggest toll.

“Last week they lifted my phone straight from my pants here,” says a guard, tapping a front pocket. “You think I’m not careful? I’ve been here a long time; I’m careful.”

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet


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