News / Africa

Migrants Suffer as South Africa’s Refugee System Crumbles

Darren Taylor
Migration specialist Roni Amit calls South Africa's policy towards migrants in recent years "the securitization of immigration."

Amit, who is a senior researcher at the Center for African Migration and Society at Johannesburg’s Wits University, says "there’s just this increased sense that we need to protect our borders and stop people from coming in. There’s this perception that there’s a flood of African migrants coming into the country and that we need to restrict that and keep them out and that they are a drain on the economy.”

The U.N. Refugee Agency [UNHCR] says South Africa receives more applications for asylum than any other country in the world.

The South African government’s unofficial attitude is that the country has enough problems of its own – including mass unemployment and poverty, frequent labor unrest and popular uprisings against the state’s failure to provide basic services – and cannot be expected to help shoulder the continent’s immense burden of migrants.

So immigration controls have been tightened significantly in recent years.

Economic migrants VS refugees

Amit maintained that the number of foreigners, especially those of African origin, said to be overwhelming South Africa is “inflated.”

“We did a study a few years ago and it found that there were four to five million foreigners in the country. That’s documented and undocumented,” she said.

UNHCR statistics show that most asylum applications in South Africa are from citizens of African countries that have been torn by crises, such as Zimbabwe, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There’s also a steady stream of Angolans, Burundians, Ethiopians, Mozambicans and Rwandese, among others.

The agency said about 480,000 foreigners are currently seeking asylum in South Africa.

But the Department of Home Affairs [DHA] rejects most applications for refugee status on the basis that the applicants are merely looking for work in South Africa, not fleeing conflicts and political repression.

“Unfortunately the Department of Home Affairs likes to say that most people [migrants], like 96 percent coming [into South Africa], are economic migrants. But there’s actually no basis for that number,” said Amit. “There are some economic migrants, but there are also people who have fled persecution or have fled civil war. But those people aren’t getting recognized in the asylum system.”

No protection for refugees

The researcher said the DHA had recently combined the immigration and asylum systems.

“They should be two separate, parallel things,” Amit insisted. “Now they’ve merged and they are really using the asylum system as a method of immigration control. So there really is no effective refugee protection in the country anymore.”

The UNHCR said as of December 2010 the DHA had recognized 58,000 people as refugees. According to immigration analysts, the number hasn’t increased significantly since then, with the vast majority of asylum claims being rejected and the DHA not providing documentation that would allow migrants to temporarily remain in South Africa.

The DHA did not respond to repeated requests from VOA for comment but has previously denied that it’s purposefully withholding the necessary permits from foreigners seeking residence in South Africa.

Amit, however, said growing numbers of migrants, unable to secure documents, are “going underground,” with grave consequences for them.

“Then they’re at risk of arrest and detention and deportation and that’s really dangerous because then they’ll be deported back to the situation that they fled from, which was unsafe to begin with. There have been some stories of some Congolese who were sent back [to the DRC] and were detained and I think some were even killed.”

Knowing they have little chance of getting official papers, Amit said, more migrants are now crossing South Africa’s borders illegally. This makes them vulnerable to criminal gangs who prey on them, robbing, raping and murdering them.

Ignorance of the law

Amit recently completed a study of official refusals of residence to migrants at refugee reception offices across South Africa.
.
“In terms of the decisions [made by immigration officials], they get the law completely wrong. They have no understanding of the legal requirements for asylum and refugee status. They’ll cut and paste something [from the internet] from a country where the law’s completely different and it’ll say the exact opposite of what South Africa’s refugee law says,” said Amit.

Migrants often report that immigration officers demand that they produce identity documents in order to apply for refugee status, even though this is not a requirement to seek asylum in South Africa and is not part of the UN Refugee Convention.

“Whether that’s a lack of knowledge or just outright defiance of the law is hard to say,” Amit said.

She added that the DHA has also been denying entry to asylum seekers based on the assertion that they should have applied for asylum in the first “safe country” they reached. Yet no such principle exists in domestic or international law.

Migrants, analysts and immigration lawyers have maintained that corruption is widespread in DHA offices countrywide.

“Certainly there are a lot of people at Lindela, the detention center for foreigners, who were arrested with valid documents and who were asked for bribes by the police and by immigration officials,” said Amit.

Ineffective strategy

The researcher insisted that the South African government’s apparent view of migrants as a threat to the country is counterproductive.

“There needs to be greater recognition of the fact that the migrants are contributing to the economy and they’re not just a drain on the economy,” she said.

Amit pointed out that with better mechanisms for regularizing the status of migrants entering South Africa, both the country and the continent would benefit.

“South Africa needs to realize it’s never going to be able to keep people out and just adopting increasingly restrictive measures aimed at just keeping people out is never going to be effective; it’s just going to be a waste of money. But I think until they have that change in mindset, it’s going to be difficult to accomplish anything,” she said.

At the moment, however, a stalemate plays itself out daily in South Africa and on the borders of Africa’s most powerful economy…with desperate migrants doing everything possible to enter a country that they’re convinced will offer them better lives, and state officials doing everything in their power to keep them out.

Listen to report on migration in South Africa
Listen to interview with Roni Amiti
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

1855 Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans

Document lists entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: nyembo christian from: durban
December 09, 2012 2:19 AM
Hi. im a refugee we are not here in south africa because is beautiful or for job we fear our life that why we are here and if you close the border and the next person its you the problem arrive in your country what he can happen next think first before you publish something so many people see your msg

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs