Refugees face “no hope” service from Home Affairs

Dozens queue, but the reception office in Gqeberha only serves 15 asylum seekers a day

| By and

The Gqeberha Refugee Reception Office had turned away about 40 people on the day we visited. Photo: Joseph Chirume

  • Many asylum seekers are being turned away at Home Affairs offices in Cape Town and Gqeberha because very few applicants are being served on any given day.
  • GroundUp met a Burundian refugee who has been given an appointment for February 2025.
  • Immigrant organisations say a good online system would be better.

In March we reported that after ten years of court battles, Home Affairs would re-open a Cape Town refugee office, having unlawfully closed its office in 2012. Home Affairs fought the matter all the way to the Supreme Court of Appeal, losing every court round, until it was finally denied leave to appeal by the Constitutional Court.

Sentiment from civil society organisations working in the refugee sector towards the new Cape Town office in Grenville Avenue, Epping, was “quite positive”. The office was to have a ticketing system to aid the flow of people and there were to be “children-friendly” areas, as well as open spaces and smart camera surveillance to eliminate corruption.

However, at a discussion on 22 June about how well the new office, which had opened on 25 April, was functioning, participants from the Scalabrini Centre, Somali Association of South Africa, Legal Resources Centre (LRC), and Lawyers for Human Rights raised several issues. This prompted GroundUp to investigate.

When we arrived at around 7:30am, there were already two snaking queues weaving between parked cars outside the gate: one for new applicants and one for people with appointments. Security staff screened people to see if they had brought the correct documents.

At 9am, an official of the Department of Home Affairs told the people waiting outside: “We have already taken 150 people [new applicants]. Go home and come back on Monday. Don’t take videos and send them to Scalabrini and UCT. I have been here since 4:30am. There are too many of you. Every day people are crossing the border. You tell your relatives to come to Cape Town, leaving all other provinces. Sleeping here is not an option, you will create problems with our neighbours. And also, don’t park your cars on our neighbours’ entrance; they are complaining.”

We met an asylum seeker from Congo. “I arrived in Cape Town in 2017,” he told us. “The refugee centre was closed to new applicants and I did not have transport money to travel to other provinces.”

The only refugee reception offices were in Durban, Musina, Pretoria and Gqeberha.

He tried to apply in February online, but never received a response.

On Monday in Epping he was turned away at 10am, when officials said they already had 150 people to serve.

On Tuesday, he returned, just before 4am. He was number ten in the queue. He was processed by 8am and told to return on 8 August. He’d hoped everything could have been sorted out that day.

GroundUp heard reports from the LRC that online applicants did not receive replies, in spite of follow-up emails, because there was such a backlog.

Last week, Home Affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza said, “The LRC was advised that process for new applicants is based on booking online. However, in instances where there are delays, clients can ask the centre for a review, via the email addresses shared with them.”

“Since 26 May 2023, clients are coming to the centre based on their language days without waiting for a response from the system. French speakers are accommodated on Mondays and Tuesdays. The complete list of language days is available on the Department’s website.”

Pascal (not his real name) was assisting his sister, a refugee from Burundi. She is a nurse, but her life is at a standstill because she cannot complete the studies she needs to meet South African requirements as she is not fully documented.

Pascal had applied on her behalf online at the Gqeberha Refugee Reception Office three days after she arrived in the country in January, because the Cape Town office was still closed. Only on 3 May 2023, did she receive a message from Home Affairs. She has been given an appointment for February 2025.

Meanwhile, dozens of people trying to apply in person for asylum permits at the Gqeberha office are being turned away. Officials at that centre are only assisting 15 new applicants a day.

GroundUp visited the Gqeberha reception office earlier this week. We met a Zimbabwean who had arrived at 5am to find 30 people already ahead of him.

Another Zimbabwean, arriving at 6am, had come from KwaNobuhle, 30km away, only to be turned away.

“I don’t think I will come back again, because there is no hope that I will be served given the total number of people they take per day,” he said.

An official who did not want to be identified said, “There is nothing we can do to assist these desperate asylum seekers, because we follow orders from our seniors who told us to serve only 15 people.”

“I feel sorry for many of the asylum seekers because some of them travel from as far as Matatiele, only to go back home empty-handed.”

“This new system is taking us back to the years when refugee reception centres were congested by applicants resulting in chaos and corruption. Some centres were turned into crime havens as criminals targeted asylum seekers who slept outside,” the official said.

People who have applied online in Gqeberha are being told that they need to report in person to the nearest refugee reception office on days of the week designated for their nationality and language.

Chris Mapingure, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Migrants Support Network, said, “Our members are struggling to get documents so that they can live in the country legally and freely.”

Said Mohamed, chairperson of the Somali Community Services, said, “The government is demanding that applicants should possess either a valid passport or identity document. Most of the people do not have them because they ran away from war with virtually nothing.

“This means they will have to go to their embassies in Pretoria to be assisted to apply to their countries. It’s a long and costly process given that there is a need for transport fares and money to pay for accommodation.”

The refugee reception office in Epping, Cape Town, only serves 150 people per day. Photo: Tariro Washinyira

TOPICS:  Home Affairs Immigration

Next:  Public Protector probes government’s 2022 flood relief efforts

Previous:  Teenagers march in Kariega for better sexual and reproductive health services

© 2023 GroundUp. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and GroundUp, and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.

We put an invisible pixel in the article so that we can count traffic to republishers. All analytics tools are solely on our servers. We do not give our logs to any third party. Logs are deleted after two weeks. We do not use any IP address identifying information except to count regional traffic. We are solely interested in counting hits, not tracking users. If you republish, please do not delete the invisible pixel.