The road to becoming a refugee in SA is about to get harder

Asta Bizimana, a refugee from Burundi living in Durban, says she left her home country because she feared for her life and hated the place after what happened to her brothers. “Burundi is plagued with political unrest and all kinds of social ills. I left the country in 2008 after my two younger brothers got butchered to death for joining a political party,” she told The Daily Vox.

Bizimana is one of many asylum seekers and refugees who are challenged by the tons of paperwork they have to go through before receiving a permit.

“Getting into this country is hard, there is a whole lot of paperwork to be done but I was lucky because when I got here I had someone to help me with all that. It was a lengthy process but it was relatively smooth,” she said.

The process is further complicated by new proposed legislation. The Refugee Amendment Bill of August 2015  has received backlash from civil society organisations who argue that the proposed law violates human rights.

The new amendments threaten asylum seekers with deportation if they fail to apply for refugee status within five days of entering South Africa. In addition, applicants for asylum will be evaluated “to determine his or her ability to sustain himself or herself, and any dependences with the assistance of family or friends for a period of at least four months,” while restricting or barring him or her from working.

Roshan Dadoo, director at Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (Cormsa) says the main problem with the amendments, other than that it seeks to limit refugees and asylum seekers the right to work, is the means test used – asylum seekers must prove that they’ll be able to provide for their families for four months.

“Amending the current bill will make things more difficult for asylum-seekers. Who will conduct these tests and on what basis?” Dadoo asks.

She says that this amendment is a violation of human rights because asylum-seekers have the right to work, seek employment and be self-employed.

“The problem is not in being a refugee; it’s in being a poor refugee. I have to make ends meet with the little that I make selling fruits and vegetables. After I came to South Africa, my life has been put on hold and I just have to focus on making sure that I have money for rent, food and my son’s school fees,” Bizimana, the Burundian refugee says.

Chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum, Marc Gbaffou, says the new amendments put refugees and asylum seekers in a fragile situation, given that there are also only three offices dealing with refugee cases (Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and Musina). “Some refugees and asylum-seekers seeking refugee status sleep at the three different offices in South Africa because only 50 applications are processed a day. Some have travelled far and can’t afford to go back to where they came from. They often battle with money to travel in an attempt to get or renew their permits,” Gbaffou says.

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Dadoo says, “Home Affairs said 90% of asylum applications are rejected. In their view, 90% of people applying for asylum are not being honest, they’re not seeking asylum, and they’re economic migrants. However it’s not a thorough process and there’s tendency to reject applications.” According to Cormsa, an economic migrant is a person who has come to South Africa mainly for economic reasons. Many do have legal documents to be in the country, with work permits, corporate permits, or as traders or shoppers.

Mayihlome Tshwete, spokesperson for the Minister of Home Affairs however, says the amendment was necessary to curb abuse of South Africa’s asylum regime.

“The intention in the amendment is to make sure that the department serves who is intended through the refugee bill. The bill was specifically targeted at those who are genuine asylum seekers seeking refugee status in our country. What has happened over the years is that economic migrants have used that system to enter into South Africa and pursue economic opportunities. As a result of that, we’ve had a clogging up of the system”, he says.

On Monday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees commended South Africa for its fair treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

“The asylum regime in South Africa is currently one of the best in the world,” UNCHR representative, Margert Etieno said.

According to Aleck Kuhudzai and Deborah Won of the Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training and Advocacy (Aresta), international law states that asylum seekers are not to be punished or denied the right to apply for and be granted asylum on the basis of their illegal entry into a country that is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, such as South Africa.

Applicants for refugee status are usually issued an asylum seeker’s permit while their application is being processed. A new UN report has revealed that at the end of last year, there were more than a million asylum seekers in South Africa, the highest number in the world. All these people were waiting for their applications to be processed.

Tshwete however says Home Affairs has made progress with the way it processes asylum-seeker applications.

“It is an achievement for us because the turnaround time is three months – in the past, it would take a number of years”, he says.

Featured image by Gulshan Khan