Asylum Applications and Issue of Permits: Department of Home Affairs briefing

Home Affairs

31 May 2010
Chairperson: Mr B Martins (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Home Affairs briefed the Committee on asylum applications and the issuing of permits. It noted that over the years it had become increasingly difficult, in view of the increase in applications, to process applications from asylum seekers. The Department explained the provisions in the United Nations and Organisation of African Unity (as it was then named) conventions, and the South African legislation and briefly outlined the distinction between refugees and asylum seekers, and noted that many people leaving other countries, particularly in Africa, and entering South Africa, were in reality economic migrants. Challenges experienced by the Department included the length of time to complete the application process, the backlogs, shortage of staff, both at the Department and the Appeal Board, inadequate risk assessment in the past, and the issue of corruption, which continued to be a major problem. Infrastructure was also severely inadequate, and extended to IT matters and track and trace.

Members discussed whether the current South African legislation was contributing to the problems, and both the Department and Members expressed their view that amendments were needed, with one Member even suggesting that South Africa’s accession to the international Conventions perhaps also needed to be revisited. However, they did understand the reasons for economic migrants seeking a better life elsewhere and recognised that during the apartheid years many South Africans had themselves sought refuge in African countries that were now experiencing their own strife and whose citizens were now entering South Africa. Members told the Department of the issues they had observed during their recent oversight visits, mentioning that in Musina, there was a need to address IT and Telkom inadequacies, the roads, the shortage of space, and, at Crown Mines, corruption had been cited as a continuing problem. They stressed that identity theft and corruption were serious issues that must be addressed and enquired to what extent the National Intelligence Agency was assisting. They also stressed that the Department must engage with other relevant departments, such as the Department of Transport, to alleviate the situation at Musina, and enquired what plans were in place. Members were worried whether the six existing centres could process the applications, enquired about the structures in place, and were pleased to hear that problems of capacity and staff recruitment were receiving attention, and that a Chief Director (present at the meeting) had been appointed. Other issues raised by Members included the issue of study permits, temporary resident permits, false information given by asylum seekers, the problem that some asylum seekers would make several applications in different provinces, and whether judicial officers hearing cases were well acquainted with the legislation and all the issues. They also questioned the systems in place for monitoring, the time frames, and the documentation being produced.

The Committee adopted the Minutes of its previous meeting.


Meeting report

Asylum Applications and Issue of Permits: Department of Home Affairs (DHA) briefing:
Mr Mkhuseli Apleni, Director General, Department of Home Affairs, noted that the Minister of Home Affairs was presently doing a review of the current system pertaining to applications for asylum and the issuing of permits, which was quite well under way. He would brief the Committee on the challenges that the Department of Home Affairs (DHA or the Department) was facing with the issuing of permits for asylum seekers.

The Chairperson said he had recently had a telephone discussion with the Minister about the review, and that the Committee would be receiving a briefing on this process very soon.

Mr Apleni sketched the background to the situation, noting that South Africa was a haven for asylum seekers, since there were several pieces of legislation which allowed a refugee to come into the country. Such a refugee was protected, when coming through the ports of entry, by the United Nations (UN) Convention of 1951. A refugee was defined as one who had a well-founded fear of persecution in his country of origin, due to his or her “race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a social group”. The (then-named) Organisation of African Unity Convention of 1969 offered further protected to a refugee who had left his own home and country due to “external aggression, occupation, foreign domination, or events seriously disturbing or disrupting public order, in either a part or the whole of his country”. The South African Refugee Act, No 130 of 1998, listed a number of provisions which made it possible for refugees fleeing from their country to have a safe haven in South Africa. All these enactments were taken into consideration by the Department when working with refugees.

Mr Apleni noted that the legislation thus defined a refugee as one who was granted refugee status based on “well-founded fears”. This was in contrast to an asylum seeker, who was a person fleeing from his or her own country, often also termed an economic migrant.

Mr Apleni noted that this legislative framework obliged the Refugee Officer at ports of entry to allow entry, without question, to refugees. If a person claimed, but was not granted refugee status, a Refugee Status Determination Officer could be requested to give reasons for not granting the status. A purported refugee could also approach the Appeals Board to review a decision. At this stage, there were frequently a number of difficult problems. The process took long, although according to the legislation such process should take no more than 30 days, since the original granting of entry allowed for a stay of 30 days. The Appeals Board typically needed to consider whether there was an unfounded reason for seeking asylum. The Department therefore tried to assist by encouraging voluntary repatriation in cases where there had, for instance, been cessation of hostilities. However, these efforts by the Department had had little effect up until now, and impacted on the 30 day expiry date. Ultimately, the refugee still possessed the right to choose to stay in South Africa.

Currently there were six reception centres where these matters were processed. These were located in Musina, Gauteng (two centres), Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Cape Town.

Mr Apleni then described the challenges faced by the Department when processing the applications. He noted that the main challenge in relation to the legislative framework was abuse of the system because of a lack of provisions to address issues around economic migrants. At implementation level, there were also challenges. The first related to a shortage of staff. He was pleased to introduce the new Chief Director, Ms Kgasi, who had been appointed on 19 April, saying that her appointment should ease the situation. The issue of corruption, which was widely known and reported, was a major problem. The lack of risk assessment had also been a challenge.

He added that the Appeal Board, similar to the Department, also suffered from lack of capacity and this was so severe that many cases were referred to litigation. He noted that the infrastructure was seriously inadequate, and was never designed to process the numbers of applications that the DHA was now experiencing. Infrastructure problems extended also to IT matters, and tracking and tracing, although the systems had improved considerably, and it was possible to issue a permit within one day.

Discussion
The Chairperson said it was very clear that there were compelling reasons driving people from other African countries to flee to South Africa. The question was how to address those who were economic migrants and were leaving their own countries looking for better economic opportunities elsewhere. He noted that the Committee had paid a visit to the border offices, and understood the context of this presentation.

Mr M Mnqasela (DA) was impressed with the DHA's approach. He said that regulations should be tightened and should certainly be in place before the FIFA World Cup, as that may be used as an opportunity for even higher numbers of people to seek asylum. He said that not all visitors over this time would be in South Africa to attend the World Cup matches.

Mr Apleni said that he had the same concerns with regard to the World Cup. He said that in the past, it had been a requirement for those arriving on international flights to fill in and lodge a form at the Arrivals desk, giving the address where the person would be staying for the duration of his or her visit. He said unfortunately this resulted in people being followed to the address they had given, and being robbed of their belongings. South African Airways (SAA) had therefore brought a halt to this requirement, but this then took away a vital system of control. DHA was now working on an advanced system that would still enable the Department to capture an address, and this system must be seen as work in progress.

The Chairperson said that the former requirement at the ports of entry for address details must be urgently replaced, by SAA, with another system and it was the responsibility of DHA to point out to SAA the vital need for it.

Mr Mnqasela asked why the Appeal Board consisted of only five people, and why there was only one Board, resulting in a centralised system.

The Chairperson asked how the Appeals Board was structured, and also how its membership was comprised. He asked whether only five members were able to deal adequately with so many applications. Mr Mnqasela said that although he had no doubts that the intentions of the DHA were good, there were serious challenges. During the Committee’s oversight visits he and other Members had seen how poorly the service was run in one of those Reception Centres. The officials were rude, and had even found excuses to leave when they were faced with Members’ enquiries. However, he noted that the manager of the Centre that the Committee visited was polite, and had honestly detailed the problems there, which mainly concerned corruption.

The Chairperson asked, in relation to the issues of corruption, whether any form of turn-around strategy was in place within the Departmental structures.

Ms P Maduna (ANC) said the Committee’s visit to Crown Mines was very worrying, because of the corruption observed there.

Mr Apleni said that identity document (ID) theft was a very serious crime, but the Courts were tending to impose very light sentences, such as a fine of R1 500. It was understandable that perhaps imprisonment might not be appropriate, particularly since the prisons were overcrowded and such cases were adding to the Justice sector’s burden, but he still felt that these matters needed to be dealt with more severely. The Department was working on how such cases should be categorised.

He assured the Committee that the DHA was committed to working on the problem of corruption at Crown Mines.

The Chairperson agreed that ID theft was not an insignificant or minor crime, since it had numerous consequences, and must be prioritised.

Ms M Maunye (ANC) said that if a person made application for refugee status and failed, that person would tend to simply move to another province and bring another application there, which might well succeed. This pointed to the need to have a system that was linked countrywide. She asked whether legal officers hearing the cases were familiar with these problems and with the relevant legislation, since the courts seemed to release asylum seekers without regard for the problems DHA was facing. She asked what could be done to improve the situation.

Ms Maduna noted that many asylum seekers did not seem to have entered South Africa for the reasons set out in the legislation, but for other reasons.

Ms Lindile Kgasi, Chief Director: Refugee Affairs, Department of Home Affairs, said that although the UN Convention had defined refugees as those leaving their countries for reasons of strife, or fears for their personal safety, or persecution because of their race or religion, the OAU Convention had then widened the categories and so much of what was generally happening in Africa could be considered as a reason.

Mr Apleni observed that deportation was not always a successful option, since an asylum seeker could be detained for no more than 30 days. When it was established that there was an unfounded reason for fleeing to South Africa, such a person would be asked for his or her country of origin, and the process of deportation would commence. Frequently, if not always, the person would give false information about his or her country of origin. This meant much time was wasted, and often the person would simply be released. He said that DHA needed to engage with the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development on this matter, so that the date of arrest and its implications could be reviewed.

Ms T Gasebonwe (ANC) agreed with the Department that amendment of the Refugee Act would improve the situation, and said that the sooner the amendments were made, the better.

Ms Maduna felt that the six centres were not capacitated to deal with the number of applications. She noted that urgent recruitment of staff should be taking place, and asked when this was likely to happen.

Mr Apleni agreed that the number of centres were inadequate and said that there were plans to open more centres, including one in Bloemfontein and an additional centre in the Boland area of Western Cape.

Mr Jackie McKay, Deputy Director General, Department of Home Affairs, said that the linking of all the centres into one system had been virtually completed, with only Musina still outstanding. He said the DHA would be able to deal more effectively now with all the applications, and could especially deal with the problem of separating those who were truly seeking asylum and those who were seeking new economic opportunities.

Mr McKay addressed the queries around recruitment by assuring Members that more staff were definitely being recruited, and the priority would be to fill posts at the ports of entry.

Ms Kgasi reiterated that there were six centres. Each of those had a system of monitoring in place. The structure at each centre the structure included a manager, working with a team, supporting that monitoring system. At national level, the monitoring systems included regular Monday teleconferences, which would examine issues such as turnaround times, and other challenges, and the systems could pick up those areas where attention had to be paid to improvements. This would enable the framework for monitoring to be strengthened. With regard to the large numbers of people and applications, the DHA used a tool called a “dashboard”, to identify the bottlenecks.

Ms H Makhuba (IFP) said the corruption amongst officials was a huge issue, and she wanted to know how DHA had dealt with these officials party to corruption, and whether there was any danger that they might, under another name, return to different DHA offices and continue to corrupt the system.

Ms D Mathebe (ANC) wanted to understand why asylum seekers particularly chose to flee to South Africa and asked whether there was any connection between the clauses in the international legislation and the South African Constitution which enabled this. She also asked what mechanisms were available to easily assist those who wanted to return to their country.

Mr Mnqasela said that Section 18 of the UN Convention of 1951 presented a challenge with regard to the migrants seeking to study and open businesses. He said that it was necessary for DHA to find ways to mitigate these challenges and to manage the process. Whilst South Africa’s reasons for signing this Convention were understood, perhaps South Africa needed to reconsider its role now, or, if that could not be done, then perhaps South Africa must tighten its own legislation to manage these problems. He added that the system in relation to temporary residence permits was poorly managed. He asked what was to be done about it. He hoped the appointment of the Chief Director would assist. He felt that tight border control was the main issue, and a new system must be found to manage the problems there.

Ms N Gxowa (ANC) asked if a moratorium could be placed on the issuing of permits.

The Chairperson noted that certain international conventions specifically dealt with people fleeing their countries because of wars and persecution, and this had to be understood and the provisions of these Conventions observed. Economic migrants would leave because of an untenable state of collapse of the economies in their countries, leaving people starving and without shelter. Obviously people would move to areas that offered better opportunities not only for survival, but even for prosperity. The State had a duty to pre-empt this situation. He reminded Members that many South Africans, during the apartheid years, had been refugees in the very states, such as Angola, Zambia and Ghana that were now experiencing their own strife.

Mr Apleni agreed that the DHA needed to tackle these problems. He said South African legislation had well-meaning, but unintended consequences. He said asylum seekers would often arrive at ports of entry without passports, but instead merely produce pieces of paper with scant information. He said this was unacceptable. The issue of the permits and amendments would be prioritised to come into effect soon. DHA had been mandated by Cabinet to deal with land borders and was participating in a process to speed up improvements. The Department of Defence had been engaged to assist the DHA efforts at the borders. Timeframes had been set and would hopefully be met. Mr Apleni noted that 15 June was the timeframe by which all applications for study and work in provinces would be processed.

The Chairperson referred again to issues of corruption and asked to what extent the services of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) were utilised to assist in general cases of corruption, as well as in matters involving international crime syndicates, and the corrupt officials within the DHA. He noted that during public hearings, immigration practitioners and Members expressed their concern that so many people were affected by the corruption.

Mr Apleni agreed that the corruption remained a tough challenge. While some problems were successfully solved, others continued.

The Chairperson said the visit to Musina, on the border with Zimbabwe, gave the Committee a clear picture of the reasons for the congestion there. The buildings were inadequate, and the road was overburdened with vehicles and people. The road was only a single carriageway, and it was difficult to understand why it had not been widened years ago, particularly to deal with the volume of traffic. This was an issue to be taken up with the relevant departments.

The Chairperson added that the IT and Telkom problems must be dealt with consistently and adequately.

Mr Apleni agreed that the border posts were still clogged, despite the many improvements effected there already, and that the best solution would probably be to move away from the border and do the processing elsewhere. However, the police and South African Revenue Service (SARS), who had duties to do in respect of security and tax collection, had no jurisdiction beyond a certain point. DHA was considering other possible solutions to this problem.

Mr Mnqasela questioned why, despite the numerous known challenges, the DHA was continuing to issue temporary residence permits.

Mr Apleni said that there was a problem with the granting of study permit, when the asylum seeker's period of study (usually three years) was completed. All that was presently required was a letter to the DHA from the university or study institution, confirming that a further period for study was required, and in this way, the right of residence was extended.

Mr Mnqasela said he was aware of the pilot system in two of the centres, and wanted to know when the other centres would come on board. He also wanted to know whether the DHA had enough capacity to deal with this new system.

Mr Apleni told him that DHA, in order to deal with the backlog of applications, had three persons from management in each province sitting with management at a central level.

Mr McKay added that DHA had the capacity to deal with the backlogs. He added, however, that DHA continued to be concerned with those immigration permits that exploited the loopholes, giving rise to serious problems.

Other Committee business
Members adopted the minutes of their previous meeting.

The Chairperson noted that the Film and Publications Board had tendered an invitation for four or five Committee Members to visit it on 4 June 2010. Most Members indicated that they would be free and could accept.

The meeting was adjourned.

 

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