How immigrants are scammed at Maitland Home Affairs

| Tariro Washinyira
Queue at Maitland Refugee Reception Centre. Photo by Mary-Jane Matsolo.

GroundUp received several allegations that bribes are commonplace at Maitland Refugee Reception Centre. We decided to investigate.

We received allegations that people wishing to obtain asylum papers could be asked to pay amounts from R800 for Zimbabweans to R3,000 for other foreign nationals, and perhaps even more, to secure asylum papers quickly. Obtaining asylum papers at the Maitland Refugee Reception Centre is difficult and time-consuming. Many asylum seekers sleep outside overnight so that they can be in the queue early enough that they will be served. If you come at, say, 9am, there’s almost no chance you’ll be served. If you are a first time asylum seeker, there are specific days that you have to queue. You have to renew your asylum papers every six months. Different days of the week are reserved for different nationalities. If you are a first time applicant, then Tuesday is your day if you Somali and Friday if you are Zimbabwean.

We spoke to a Pakistani immigrant, Amin, who came to South Africa 12 years ago. Every six months since then he has had to queue from early in the morning in order to be served. Sometimes he only gets served by 3pm.

The Centre is in what appears to be an old large warehouse next to Voortrekker Road. It is sufficiently hidden from the road that you cannot see the mass of people in long snaking queues and the continuous verbal abuse and rough handling they receive from the security guards, which we witnessed. The site is exposed to the weather. There are lots of petty criminals and asylum seekers get their belongings snatched if they are not vigilant.

The incentive for bribery is substantial. According to a businessman in the area we spoke to, there is a network of people including security guards, people inside Home Affairs and foreigners themselves who facilitate bribes from asylum seekers in order to bypass the queues.

A GroundUp reporter posed as an asylum seeker. She received a tip-off and obtained the cell phone number of a man named George (083 240 0015), who was linked to the Maitland centre. She made contact with him and recorded a conversation in which he agreed to process an urgent application for asylum papers if she paid him R800. She asked George if she should deposit the money into a bank account, to which George replied that this was corruption and a cash transaction.

George asked her to come to the Maitland centre at eight o’clock in the morning the following day.

On arrival, the journalist phoned George and gave him a full description of herself. He sent someone to fetch her. She was instructed to give this person the money before he walked her to the offices. When she queried the man regarding why she should pay him before the papers were processed, he answered that this was part of their business principles and was necessary in order for the security guards to allow them to enter the building. He phoned George who tried to convince her to pay the amount, which she refused to do, finally saying that she would go back home and think about it.

When we informed Home Affairs what happened and asked for comment, they wanted evidence that George worked for Home Affairs. So a couple of weeks later the GroundUp journalist made contact with George again and returned to the Maitland refugee centre with R800. This time she tried to negotiate to pay half the money in advance and half after she had received her papers. But the man who George sent to meet her became suspicious and angry, asking if she was police. So she paid the full amount. The man then appeared to negotiate her entrance with security guards. She was turned back twice. On the third attempt she got in.

When she got inside a female security guard asked why she was there because it was not her day (this was Somali day and our reporter is Zimbabwean). Our reporter said that she had spoken to George. Immediately the security guard allowed her to sit. She waited to be served by George the whole day, who spoke to her on the phone and sms’d her. But eventually it appears he became suspicious and never made an appearance. Our reporter therefore left at about 3pm.

Here is the SMS correspondence between George and our journalist:

  • Journalist - 22 May, 9:03 Hi its me tendai am waiting for u am with my sister she is wearing red hat by the entrance

  • George - 9:07 Can u sms yo fulnames and d o b plz now

  • Journalist sends details.

  • George - 9:12 I will cal u soon wait 4me

  • Journalist - 9:17 Ok i have the 800 here i will give u 400 now and 400 when i have papers

  • George - 9:19 Plz if u not rdy 4what u want dnt try me a u e police or what?

  • Journalist - 9:25 I am sory if i pissed u off u know money is difficult cum and see i hav the money am ready for what i want.

The journalist phoned several times without response. In the meanwhile she was escorted inside.

  • Journalist - 10:10 I am nw insid at the bek

George then called and asked the journalist to send her ID, which she did.

After that she never heard from him despite several attempts to contact him. On Friday 25 May she received a final message from an unknown number, which she did not respond to.

  • Unknown number - 20:52 Sister am trying to call you but you are not pickin up calls, am the guy gave 800 at H/Affair, i need to help you if you passport to get Permit for 4yrs, so cal now

A Zimbabwean man at the Maitland offices known as Rasta admitted that he makes his living by soliciting bribes from desperate asylum seekers. “Our charges range from R800 to R3,000, depending on the nationality of the client. For instance, Zimbabweans are considered the poorest so we charge them R800 for the six months asylum paper. Somalis have got separate charges, a bit higher than Zimbabweans, followed by Asians and Chinese whom we charge between R1,000 and R3,000,” he said. He also promised to provide us with news leads in future if we agreed to pay him for them. He says that there are people of other nationalities involved in soliciting bribes who have contact with top people from inside the Maitland Home Affairs offices. These people include South Africans and foreign nationals from Bangladesh.

Ronnie Mamoepa, spokesperson for Home Affairs, said, “The Department of Home Affairs is committed to rooting out corruption. In this regard the matter is being investigated by the anti-corruption unit which works in conjunction with SAPS. Any staff member found to be involved in any corrupt activity will be dealt with according to the law.”

People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), a non-profit human rights organisation devoted to fighting for the rights of asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants in South Africa, said that they are aware of the corruption at Maitland Refugee Reception Centre. Anthony Muteti, PASSOP Community Outreach Officer and paralegal, says that the bribery problem goes back to when the offices were still in Cape Town and escalated when offices moved to Nyanga. He says that The Department of Home Affairs is aware of the corruption, “In 2011 we monitored Maitland Refugee Reception Centre closely, compiled evidence of corruption and reported it to the Provincial Manager. This resulted in the Maitland Centre manager being fired, changes of leadership and changing of the security company.”

“Besides six month permits, they also process fake statuses and four-year work permits. Those who got these permits often do not know that they are not genuine permits and end up facing allegations of using them to pass the border because when the barcode is scanned it reflects someone else’s name. Our biggest worry is that when you go to the Maitland centre security guards will be busy focusing on terrorizing refugees in the queue instead of the culprits who will be loitering around causing chaos.”

There are also reports of these bribery transactions resulting in violence. Albert Mombe (not his real name), a Zimbabwean foreign national, says he was beaten by people soliciting bribes when they had a misunderstanding about payment.

Lucky Katenhe of PASSOP says that asylum seekers turn to corrupt methods in order to get their papers processed out of desperation, “Corruption is their last resort because the refugee centre is failing them.”

See also:

TOPICS:  Corruption Crime Government Immigration Maitland Home Affairs

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