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Backlog Project provides hope for Cape Town refugees, asylum seekers

Several deserted tents, a few smouldering fires and a trampled field are a far cry from the constant traffic flow on Voortrekker Road in Cape Town that runs parallel with the Wingfield military base, which scores of refugees and asylum seekers called home for the past year. 

For some, their protest journey might have come full circle with the Backlog Project, funded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

It is just over a year since two sites, Wingfield in Maitland and Paint City in Bellville, which were erected during the hard lockdown under the Covid-19 Disaster Management Act, became temporary shelter for more than 1 5o0 refugees and asylum seekers mostly from Africa.

Xenophobic attacks and the inability to finalise legal papers led to the initial call to protest on 8 October 2019 in Cape Town. After occupying Greenmarket Square and the Central Methodist Church in the city centre, the city received the green light from the high court in February last year to enforce its bylaws, ending the six-month protest.

On 7 April 2020, the camps welcomed the new tenants — mothers, fathers, teenagers, children and infants, of which one, named Bylaw, was only two months old. 

The Wingfield site initially housed just over 800 people, of which the majority are Congolese. Numbers lessened to 719 and were further reduced to about 360 people. 

Many people decided to leave the campsite in accordance with the support offered by the UNHCR. This included three months’ rent payments for those who wanted to reintegrate locally, and assistance for those who wanted to return to their countries of origin.

According to refugee and camp adviser Olivier Kashala: “There was an assessment process in Parow; people could explain what they wanted, and obviously had to explain and justify [those wants] based on your individual circumstances. Based on that, social support has started already and people started moving. Out of the 440 we can say three-quarters are already gone.” 

Another refugee and adviser, Blaise Momili, will be leaving the camp to be reintegrated locally, finally ending his protest journey. 

“We are going back but we also need [government] to cooperate, according to what they told us, that we need to cooperate to go back to the community. We respect it. But we need them to continue to look after us to just complete our argument,” said Momili. 

The 360 or so people remaining at the Wingfield site said they did not want to stay in South Africa, and instead wanted to be resettled in another country. 

Daff Milambo, a spokesperson for the remaining group, told the Mail & Guardian: “We don’t want to be placed in different communities, we want to be placed in one place. The majority doesn’t want to stay in South Africa anymore. We don’t want to be put in different corners and be forgotten. That will not stop the xenophobic attacks we have been facing …”

In early March last year, the Women and Children Concern (WCC) organisation wrote to the UNHCR requesting the resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees in another country because of xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

The spokesperson for the UNHCR in South Africa, Kate Pond: “When it comes to resettlement it’s not the UNHCR decision. It is the decision of the resettlement countries. All we do is facilitate it. [Resettlement] is something that’s available to a very small number of refugees worldwide who are extremely vulnerable. In fact, last year less than 1% of refugees were resettled.” 

The refugees also face a waiting period of up to a decade for their legal papers to be processed.  

In March this year, the standing committee for refugee affairs told parliament that its mandate to deal with outstanding refugee applications was “severely curtailed by staff shortages” because it remained dependent on the department of home affairs for its budget and human resources allocation.

During the same parliamentary session, the Refugee Appeals Authority of South Africa, which handles appeal cases issued by refugees and asylum seekers,  told parliament it had experienced a significant backlog in the finalisation of appeals. It had 124 00 active cases and 29 967 inactive cases, totalling 153 967 appeals. 

The UNHCR made available R147-million to South Africa to establish the Backlog Project. 

Parliament has expressed its concern regarding the absence of a clear time frame and reachable targets. But Jesús Pérez Sánchez, the senior protection officer for the UNHCR South Africa multi-country office, is confident that the project will “eliminate the backlog over the next four years, and strengthen the system to ensure another one does not form”. 

He said that during the allotted time frame, the appeals of 153 391 people would be heard.

According to Pond, two-thirds of the 266 694 refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa do not have adequate protections, but it is the latter who are in a more precarious position.  

“A refugee has various legal protections. In South Africa, they have rights, privileges, almost on a par with citizens, they have access to education, healthcare, social services, and they can work. The only thing they can’t do that a South African can do, is vote.”

The opposite is true for asylum seekers. 

“An asylum seeker is in a much more precarious situation. Their permits expire quickly so they are constantly having to renew them, they don’t have the same rights and privileges as a refugee. And some of them, they’ve had their claim stuck in the system for up to a decade, which is essentially a decade in limbo.”

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a junior daily news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a freelance journalist and a broadcaster at Maroela Media and Smile90.4FM.

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