The long wait for freedom

The refugee reception office in Pretoria reputedly is one of the better run of the Home Affairs Department’s branches in South Africa’s major cities. All the same, it is not a place that looks very efficient.

Situated in Marabastad, a place of ill-maintained roads, overgrown verges and uncollected garbage, it cannot be of much inspiration to the tired and huddled masses who flock there each morning, looking for asylum or refugee status in South Africa.
Inside, in one small waiting area, anywhere between 40 and 60 men and women (some with children) vie for space with old metal filing cabinets, boxes of ceramic tiles and the unpleasant odours of too many bodies in too close proximity to each other.

Congolese, Arabs, Pakistanis, Zimbabweans, Angolans or other foreigners of a dozen different nationalities have spilled over into the corridors between offices starkly impersonal little boxes occupied by overworked looking bureaucrats.

All these people have come for the eligibility determination forms for asylum seekers temporary permits to allow them to stay in South Africa sans arrests, detentions or deportations and for the interviews that must be passed before any such documents can be handed out.

“The long hours of waiting, the days of repeated returning before one gets any documents can cause a serious psychological problem to a person,” said Abasok (not his real name), a refugee from Southern Sudan. Abasok, a Dinka, says a particularly bloodthirsty attack by government forces on positions of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army guerrillas not far from the Ugandan border forced him to flee to Kampala from where he made his way to South Africa.

“I am really happy that I now finally have the asylum seeker’s temporary permit,” he says, suggesting that anything, anywhere else is better than what he has gone through. The document he has just received comes with several riders, one of which prohibits him from being employed in South Africa for a minimum of six months. This is a measure supposedly meant to deter illegal economic immigrants from using asylum procedures to become employed.

“There truly is little sense in laws that do not allow people to work, be they refugees or asylum seekers, and yet make no additional provisions for their survival,” said Jacob van Garderen of Lawyers for Human Rights. Despite the ban on gainful employment, the asylum seeker is expected to somehow repeatedly make the trip to and from the home affairs office. No provisions are in place for shelter, since South Africa does not even have refugee camps although there are detention camps. Refugees don’t get any stipend, save the few who can be helped by organisations such as the Jesuit Refugee Service, operating on a limited budget.

In short, the best a refugee can expect is to get a document from home affairs, and then be left to his own devices until such time as he gets refugee status and is allowed to work and to access social services. It doesn’t take much guessing to see where all this leads in that six-month period; asylum seekers will either end up living on the streets or resorting to illegal means to earn a living.

Abasok speaks of his troubles in a strangely impersonal voice. And as he speaks there is a sound of shooing as home affairs employees try to clear the corridors, physically pushing back into the cramped area those individuals who overflowed from it, or pushing the overflow out of the door.
One can’t help but be struck by the symbolism of the scene: South Africa straining to push an unwanted problem out of the door. To be fair, though, it isn’t only here that refugees are not wanted.

In South Africa’s case, the problem has a manageable figure, in comparison to other countries in Africa, or elsewhere in the world. Approximately 70000 asylum applications have been recorded since 1994. It is those who don’t register with the authorities once in South Africa, mainly economic emigrants that, according to authorities, are a real cause for concern. Unofficial estimates put these anywhere from two to three million.

However, it is while trying to deal with the multitudes of illegal immigrants that the South African government which waged war from bases provided by the very countries whose nationals flock here, mainly in search of a better life has been found wanting.

The African National Congress-led government lays itself open to a double-pronged charge of hypocrisy, first by pursuing clearly anti-immigration policies, and then in the process of implementing these policies, failing to even be humane about it.

In December 2000 the South African Human Rights Commission published a report on the lack of respect for the human rights of undocumented migrants and refugees at the Lindela detention centre. The findings showed that the inmates regularly suffered assault and were subjected to systematic, forced interruption of sleep. Irregular and inadequate medical care, a general lack of adequate nutrition, ill-treatment of minors and access to information were in evidence.

But it was the beating to death earlier this month of Hamid Muesi, a Malawian who allegedly escaped from Lindela, that brought to public light the extent of abuses there. Police say investigations into Muesi’s death are still in process. However, the five guards from the centre accused of fatally beating Muesi have been suspended indefinitely pending the court case, according to a spokesperson for Bosasa Operations, the company that runs the centre. Still, say human rights activists, this cannot be the solution.

“Obviously, there are disturbing problems at the centre, and the way it is run,” said Ema Algotsson of Lawyers for Human Rights. One of the main problems is that Lindela is run by private companies with “no clear guidelines and instructions on how to manage it”. Government has come under attack several times on the issue.

Management of the Lindela facility first went to Dyambu Operations, which won a tender that gave rise to much acrimony, with allegations that politicians had an interest in the company.
Jody Kollapen of the South African Human Rights Commission said the commission had been trying to get a copy of Bosasa’s contract “for years”, to no avail.

“Firstly, home affairs has no apparent statutory or contractual power to review, monitor or report on activities at Lindela, nor does it have the authority to intervene in a threatening emergency situation at the centre,” says a report by the commission.
The difficult life of a refugee or illegal immigrant in South Africa has been well chronicled in media reports: xenophobic attacks, arrests by police on such spurious grounds as “having too dark a skin complexion”, police setting vicious dogs on them, forced repatriation and so on.

There are also the incidents that rarely hit the headlines, but whose consequences are nonetheless bad: unfair rejection of asylum applications, lack of legal representation at appeals hearings, lack of access to social and welfare services even for children. However, South Africa looks set to tighten the screws further on migrants in its proposed Immigration Bill.

While the motives behind formulation of the Bill, mainly to attract foreign skills and investment into the country, have been lauded, there is an alarming flip side for unskilled immigrants. As far as they are concerned, the Bill could actually further encourage xenophobia.

In part the Bill stipulates that home affairs wants to “concentrate resources and efforts in enforcing the Act at community level, and discourage ‘illegal foreigners’”, It also aims to further “create a climate of cooperation with communities and organs of civil society ... to encourage them to cooperate with the department” in implementing its goals. “These intentions could only reflect the department’s vision to encourage communities to become informers,” say Lawyers for Human Rights.

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