Refugees International July 14, 2004
South Africa is denying access to
political asylum to thousands of Zimbabweans seeking to escape
persecution. Of the 5,000 applications for political asylum
filed by Zimbabweans to date, fewer than 20 Zimbabweans have
actually received political asylum in South Africa. But more
troubling still is the fact that few Zimbabweans are able even
to apply for political asylum.
The South African government office that handles
immigration, Department of Home Affairs (DHA), has five Refugee
Reception Offices in the country. There are two offices close
to the Zimbabwe border. The largest office, in a shopping
center in the Rosettenville section of Johannesburg, has been
moved and closed repeatedly since October 2003. There are
no signs identifying the office, but it is easy to find if
one looks for the hundreds of people clustered in an alley
trying to gain access. Asylum seekers sleep overnight to get
a good place in line and queue for hours. One asylum seeker
told Refugees International, "This is the third time
I've been here
I've never been in, you just wait in
While DHA has acknowledged its problems and
is working on a "turnaround strategy," in the words
of DHA Director General, Mr. Barry Gilder, it "still
has a long way to go." All of the offices are woefully
understaffed, resulting in a backlog of up to 80,000 cases
waiting to be reviewed. DHA claims that Zimbabweans do not
face more barriers than asylum seekers of other nationalities,
but that is contrary to the direct observations of RI. A Zimbabwean
told us that he lined up at 11 a.m. the day before the office
opened so he could be first in line. "They only took
one Zimbabwean that day. I was number two." While the
senior management of the Immigration Department acknowledged
to RI that Zimbabweans have the right to be considered refugees,
Refugee Reception officers were unable to state whether or
not Zimbabweans had the right to political asylum in South
Africa. Staff in the Reception Office told RI that Zimbabweans
were not a priority because "there is no civil war in
Zimbabwe, so there is no reason to apply." Other Zimbabweans
told us they were denied access to the process because they
did not have valid passports. Even the UN agency in charge
of refugees could not agree. The Office of the UN High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) in South Africa was also unable to provide
a clear determination as to whether Zimbabweans qualify for
asylum. They told RI that they were waiting clarification
themselves from Geneva.
Corruption is widespread within the Department
of Home Affairs and the South African Police Services. RI
interviewed people who told of being asked for a bribe merely
to receive a letter giving them an appointment to present
their asylum claim. Police officers ask for bribes to look
the other way when rounding up undocumented asylum seekers
or those whose temporary permit of stay has expired. One Zimbabwean
told us, "I was stopped while walking down the street.
The policeman asked for my papers but told me that for 200
Rand [U$33] he would not deport me." At the Lindela detention
center, bribes are demanded for release, while deportees can
also pay to jump from the "deportation train" on
the way back to Zimbabwe.
In 2003, over 100 Zimbabwean asylum seekers
were unlawfully detained in the Lindela Detention Center.
Zimbabweans comprise the second largest group of deportees.
Most are repatriated without ever having seen an immigration
official. According to organizations that work in Lindela,
there are very few immigration officers who work in the facility.
"On any given day there may be between two and zero for
a facility that holds up to 5,000 people."
There is no Refugee Reception Officer in Musina,
a town that rests on the major thoroughfare between South
Africa and Zimbabwe. If an asylum seeker were to request to
apply, they would be directed to go to Pretoria or Johannesburg,
over five hours away. No transportation would be provided.
RI interviewed Zimbabweans along the border who told us of
being arrested and immediately dropped over the border without
any contact with immigration officials. Police and Army in
the border regions rely on spurious methods to identify Zimbabweans,
such as asking questions in a South African language or checking
which arm bears a smallpox scar. According to an NGO working
in Musina, "The police have no training. Some people
are being deported because [Zimbabweans] are darker."
Refugees International, therefore, recommends
· The Government of South Africa earmark
and disburse more funds to DHA in order to staff and equip
the Refugee Reception Offices in Pretoria and Johannesburg.
· DHA immediately form a task force
to address the backlog of pending political asylum cases and
prioritize interviews with Zimbabwe political asylum seekers.
· DHA continue to root out corruption
among its officials and implement their Counter-Corruption
· DHA increase the number of immigration
officers in the Lindela Deportation Center and ensure that
there are always immigration officers on duty.
· DHA establish a Refugee Reception
Office in Musina as soon as possible. In the meantime, they
should increase capacity of passport control officers at the
border to issue temporary permits to asylum seekers.
· South African Police Services institute
measures to address corruption at all levels and train all
relevant staff in the proper handling of political asylum
Refugees International Advocates Sarah Martin and Andrea Lari
just returned from a three-week assessment mission to Zimbabwe
and South Africa.