The amount of time asylum seekers have to apply for refugee status after entering South Africa could be reduced from 14 days to five if the department of home affairs succeeds in passing its Immigration Amendment Bill, which is before Parliament.
The amendment could prevent many asylum seekers eligible for refugee status from receiving the protection they have a lawful right to claim, as well as contribute to the country’s refugee-processing backlog.
Asylum-seekers can apply for refugee status, defined as a section 22 permit in the Refugee Act, only at one of the country’s refugee reception centres.
The permit entitles applicants to temporary legal status and most of the rights of a South African citizen, except the right to vote.
But allowing asylum-seekers 14 days to apply for the permit after crossing the border has already proved inadequate. Queues can stretch for days outside the centres, which are understaffed and disorganised.
“This change is one-rous to someone who is fleeing political persecution — that time is too short,” said Gabriel Shumba, executive director of the Zimbabwean Exiles’ Forum. Shumba said asylum-seekers often sleep in the cold or pay bribes to officials for a better place in the queue.
South Africa has the highest number of registered asylum-seekers in the world.
About 95% of asylum seekers in South Africa enter from Mozambique or Zimbabwe — through border posts, or illegally — according to home affairs.
South Africa’s policies on applying for refugee status are considerably more stringent than many other nations that receive large volumes of asylum seekers, such as Canada, which gives asylum-seekers 28 days to make similar claims.
Shumba said asylum-seekers should have a minimum of 21 days to apply for refugee status. On their arrival they are immediately burdened with the need to acclimatise to a new country, find food and shelter, locate reception centres and make their way through queues to complete their paperwork.
The penalty for violating the provision, he said, was immediate deportation or two years’ imprisonment.
At a briefing in March Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said that reaching a reception office from a port of entry “should not take one [an asylum-seeker] longer than 24 hours”.
A 2008 Human Rights Watch report found that the long queues were the main obstacle preventing asylum-seekers from filing claims within 14 days.
Backlogs at the centres are exacerbated by home affairs’s recent closure of the only centre in Johannesburg, in Crown Mines, in response to complaints from the area’s business community. Other centres, including Cape Town’s, face similar threats of closure.
In an interview in late June, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Fatima Chohan said the proposed amendment would make it more challenging for those who try to abuse the asylum process. Chohan said home affairs might open new centres near border posts, but no action has yet been taken.
South African and international law forbid the deportation of those who have expressed the intention to claim asylum or those whose claim is pending.
Human rights activists are concerned that the pending amendment will lead to an increase in unlawful deportations.