Illegal immigrants 'abuse SA refugee system'

South Africa’s refugee system is being abused by those seeking to legalise their stay in the country even though they fall outside the definition of a refugee, Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Johnny de Lange said in Cape Town on Thursday.

He was speaking at a meeting regarding the status and treatment of refugees. The event was part of a session of the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organisation (Aalco), meeting in the city until Friday.

Aalco is a body of legal experts from 48 countries coming together to discuss issues of common concern.

De Lange said there are people who come to South Africa as economic migrants and may not have left their countries as victims of political or ethnic persecution.

“They are not refugees under South African law, and they would not be recognised as refugees in other countries either,” he said. “The belief that refugee status is an easy way to obtaining permission to stay in the country is clogging our refugee processing systems and is a major factor in creating the backlogs we are currently experiencing.”

De Lange said besides the challenges for refugees to access the correct documentation they need because of backlogs in the system, they also experience other problems. “Refugees are also subject to particular hardships such as family separation, exploitation, violence and generalized discrimination.”

He said he is also aware of tensions arising within communities in South Africa when foreigners settle there. South Africa intends to embark on a process of integrating refugees into local communities.

Speaking earlier, Aalco secretary general Wafik Z Kamil said legal experts need to consider whether conventions on the status of refugees established in the 1950s and 1960s are still able to protect refugees.

He said countries need to establish how to manage laws for the “mixed flows” of refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants and others on the move in a way that upholds human rights and humanitarian principles.

Legal experts need to deliberate on the validity of claims of refugee status based on economic destitution and on “the need to make a distinction, if at all, between the political refugees and economic migrants,” said Kamil.—Sapa

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