Refugees International

Zimbabweans in South Africa: Denied Access to Political Asylum

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 line."

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 that:

· 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 operational plan.

· 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 procedures.

Refugees International Advocates Sarah Martin and Andrea Lari just returned from a three-week assessment mission to Zimbabwe and South Africa.

[email protected]