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South Africa Opens Special Center to Register Asylum Seekers

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The South African government this week opens a special center to register asylum seekers from southern Africa and in particular Zimbabwe. The center is also to help implement a new program that will allow Zimbabwean economic migrants to stay legally in the country.

The Director of Refugee Affairs in South Africa's Home Affairs Ministry, Busisiwe Mkhwebane-Tshehla, this past week led a tour of a large hall in western Pretoria.

The newly opened Tswane Interim Refugee Reception office is to register thousands of people who come to South Africa from around the region.

"The center will at first be a refugee reception office where we'll receive asylum applications," Mkhwebane-Tshehla said. "We'll consider their applications and then we'll determine whether they qualify for refugee status."

The new facility, with a staff of 100 people, will be able to process more than 400 applications per day. Officials say, moreover, the applicants will receive a decision on their petition on the same day they apply and will be able to file an appeal if they are rejected.

Millions of southern Africans have come to South Africa saying they are fleeing political repression at home. The influx is straining the existing centers which can take weeks to process asylum applications.

But Mkhwebane-Tshehla says the government believes most immigrants from the region come primarily looking for jobs and it rejects most applications.

"There are very few approvals because most of the time you will find that our applicants are economic migrants who would want to legalize themselves in the country so that they can work and study in South Africa," Mkhwebane-Tshehla said.

Officials say 65 percent of all asylum applications come from the 15 nations of the Southern African Development Community, SADC. And they say half of these applicants are from Zimbabwe where the economy has declined by 40 percent in the past decade and unemployment has surpassed 90 percent.

Many of the estimated three million Zimbabweans in South Africa do not have documents and daily risk arrest and deportation.

The government says this risk is to end under a new policy, announced earlier this month, that will allow all Zimbabweans to stay legally in South Africa for up to six months.

A senior official in the Department of Refugee Affairs, Richard Stoltz, says the new center is designed to help the government implement the new policy.

"This center will be our flagship because it's designed for that," Stoltz said. "But we will endeavor to implement similar processes in each of our provinces so that we can ensure that there is a universal implementation of that program."

He said Zimbabweans will be given special permits allowing them to work or study in South Africa and access local health services.

"Any Zimbabwean national who has credible means of identification and can be proven to be of that nationality will not be deported," Stoltz said.

Human rights activists have welcomed the new program but wonder what will happen after the six month period has expired.

South African officials note that the new power sharing government in Zimbabwe has announced a multi-billion dollar economic stabilization plan.

They hope this will ease the influx of refugees. If not, they say they will consider extending the permits or other options.