News / Africa

Migrants Suffer Under Weight of South Africa's Refugee System

Darren Taylor
“What we’ve seen in the past few years is the securitization of immigration in South Africa,” said Roni Amit, a senior researcher at the Center for African Migration and Society at Johannesburg’s Wits University.

“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 migrants in South Africa
Listen to report on migrants in South Africa i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

You May Like

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Moses
December 14, 2012 10:08 PM
The refugee matter is obvious when one looks at an example like Zimbabwe, research what has been happening there from 2008 till now - then inquire what a Zimbabwe passport costs, realize, that without employment, getting one is impossible, wherever you live. In short your life takes priority over a passport for several obvious reasons.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid