Refugees in backlog limbo

A damning exit report by a team of experts blasts the Department of Home Affairs for failing asylum-seekers in South Africa.

The report was submitted in March this year by the team charged with assessing and addressing the huge backlog in processing asylum-seekers.

The project was initiated by Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to examine all refugee applications between April 1998 and July 2005.

The report says: ‘Two and a half years since the start of the [Refugee] Backlog Project — we see the same chaos we first experienced when joining home affairs in September 2005, with a new backlog larger than the one that has just been effectively cleared.”

Leaked to the Mail & Guardian, the report paints a picture of a fractured department.

It notes that the department is ‘in constant violation of the laws regulating processing of asylum-seekers” and that senior managers have been unable ‘to lead the organisation out of its perpetual crisis to a harmonious relationship between policy and practice”.

It continues: ‘Operating systems for processing asylum-seekers have just about collapsed and are spinning out of control. The situation requires a rescue mission.”

The report also offers little hope to refugees who have been waiting for asylum-seeker status so they can access jobs, health and education.

It goes on to say that the backlog project has not been integrated with home affairs’s vaunted ‘turnaround strategy”, launched last year.

Noting that the turnaround projections were ‘way off target”, its plans ‘inappropriate” and its resource projections ‘inaccurate”, the team says: ‘There was no synergy with the turnaround team when the backlog team was winding up its work, so essentially these guys appear to be starting from scratch.

‘Whatever work we have done is being ignored or is already becoming undone.”

The author of the report said that when the backlog project started there was no nationally integrated system to capture refugee data.

‘We did three file audits and compiled a master list of applications shared between the backlog project offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban. To my knowledge, that list isn’t being used by the turnaround team.”

He said the previous computer system, used to record asylum-seekers, was ‘unmanageable. It freezes all the time and when it crashed in Johannesburg in 2006 we lost all record of refugees who had registered from 1998 to 2000. They either had to be re-registered or fast-tracked in the system.”

And while the backlog project had identified and processed 119 125 cases for the period of its mandate, a new backlog of ‘staggering proportions” has developed with the influx of refugees since August 2005. In Cape Town alone there is a backlog of ‘approximately 30 000”.

‘The reality is that refugees will have to wait for up to two years just to get their fingerprints verified,” said a source who worked on the backlog project.

The report says refugees whose applications have been rejected ‘can expect to be in the country for an additional two years before their cases can be finalised” if they appeal.

Other criticisms contained in the report include:

  • The complete absence of infrastructure at the start of the project despite the fact that it was ordered by the minister. Administrative staff for the project were employed only in June 2007.

  • The project was promised a ‘state of the art [information technology]” system. Eighteen months into the project the team was informed that it was a ‘dummy system”.

  • The steering committee for the project appeared not to read weekly reports, as ‘the challenges highlighted by the reports were never addressed”.

  • Civil servants working in refugee affairs are not adequately informed about the political situation in the refugees’ countries of origin.

  • There is ‘no structured relationship” between refugee affairs and the immigration office. Failed asylum-seekers were handed over to immigration, which ‘had no capacity to deal with them”, while the Immigration Office provided ‘no assistance” when cases of identity document fraud were uncovered.

  • Immigration officers are not trained in refugee law or the rights of refugees.

  • The Lindela Repatriation Centre deports people without taking fingerprints, making it hard to ascertain who has left the country.
  • The Mail & Guardian sent detailed questions to the Home Affairs Department on Tuesday morning, but had not received a reply by the time it went to print.

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