Plans & progress in relocation of Refugee Reception Offices a& on implementation of Refugee Regulations: Departmental briefing

Home Affairs

03 March 2015
Chairperson: Mr B Mashile (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) briefed the Committee on amendments to the Refugee Act and on the establishment of a refugee reception centre in Lebombo, Mpumalanga.

The DHA gave a background to legislation currently in place which governs refugee affairs.  The presentation then centred on the challenges the Department had encountered in acquiring a site for the establishment of a refugee reception centre close to the Zimbabwean border. The identified site had yet to be secured, as the Department was awaiting a re-zoning application from the municipality. The outcome of the application was expected on 6 March 2015.

The Refugees Amendment Bill 2015 would be submitted to Cabinet in April. With regard to the Lebombo office, the Department was still awaiting confirmation that its application to re-zone an area in Lebombo had been approved. Thereafter, planning and construction of the structure would get underway.

Questions raised included other refugee offices should be closed in the interim and whether the rights of refugees had been taken in to account. The discussions then focused on what the Department had budgeted for the Lebombo reception office. The Department’s repeated inability to provide a figure fuelled exasperation from DA and EFF Members. 

Following the discussion, the Committee approved the minutes of February meetings.  

Meeting report

Mr Mkuseli Apleni, Director-General, Department of Home Affairs (DHA) briefed the Committee on amendments to the Refugee Act and on the establishment of a refugee reception centre in Lebombo, Mpumalanga.

Draft Refugees Amendment Bill

Mr Apleni provided the Committee with the background to the Refugees Amendment, 2008 (Act No.33 of 2008); the Refugee Amendment Act 2011 (Act No. 12, of 2011); and the Draft Refugees Amendment Bill, 2015.  (See presentation)

The Bill would give effect to the Constitutional Court’s decision in the Mail & Guardian case regarding the accessibility of refugee appeal hearings. Mr Apleni said the more flexible legislation sought to give the Refugee Appeal Board more discretion. The draft Bill would be introduced to Parliament by the end of the year.

Refugee Reception Centre in Lebombo

The Director-General referred to the numerous difficulties the Department had in finding a site. A site had been identified 6km from the Mozambican and South African border. The Department had approached the Department of Public Works and had been notified that the area was zoned for agricultural use. It would need to be zoned for administrative use. The Department had lodged an application for re-zoning with the municipality in August 2014. The outcome of the application was expected by 6 March, 2015. Once the application had been approved by the municipality, the Department of Public Works would be approached to explore the possibility of establishing an interim structure while construction of the permanent structure was underway. A comparative assessment of candidate sites and two letters from the Director-General of the Department of Public Works, Mr Mziwonke Dlabantu, to the Department of Home Affairs were attached.

Discussion 

Before he opened for Members’ question, the Chairperson commented that unless there were compelling reasons, the Department needed to agree that the process of acquiring space for a refugee reception centre was taking too long. It had started in 2012. Was this confirmation that the wheels of government were very slow?

Mr M Hoosen (DA) asked for the reasons why refugee offices were being closed. With the backlog in applications for refugee and asylum seeker status, centralisation did not make sense.  Would demand be met and if so, how long would it take? Were accommodation, sanitation and security going to be provided for people who had to wait for long periods? The greatest fear was a concentration camp would be created around a centralised building area. More offices, not fewer, needed to be opened.

Ms H Maxon (EFF) asked what the budgetary implications for the relocation of the offices were. The process was taking too long.

Ms D Raphuti (ANC) said the process had been long and tedious. Was there no way it could have been sped up?

Mr A Figlan (DA) was concerned about the distance people would need to travel. What was the planned month for the Refugee Amendment Bill being tabled? Would this bear in mind the September deadline of the Constitutional Court?

Mr Apleni replied that the wheels of government at times did move slowly, but there was a separation of duties in government. The Department could not go and find land on its own -- it had to go through the Department of Public Works.

He referred Members to the presentation where the other sites that had been considered had been identified. Other stumbling blocks to acquiring a site were land claims. Only after the first zoning issue hurdle had been passed could the Department take the site and establish a temporary structure.

He would not elaborate on the decision to close the Cape Town and Port Elizabeth refugee centres, as the matter was before the courts and sub judice.

Mr Apleni said it was not the intention to create concentration camps. Integration was desired. The Western Cape was not sharing a border with any country, therefore it was not fair to ask asylum seekers from Beit Bridge or Lebombo to criss-cross the country without resources to be serviced. Why not bring the resources closer? The refugee centre would be 6km from the border. The Department was mindful of all the incoming routes of asylum seekers and where they came from.

The funding implications had been looked at. There was a specific allocation to improve the infrastructure around the border, including the site. Once the land had been secured, the funding would be there.

He said the Bill had been drafted and it would be submitted to Cabinet in April to register, and thereafter it would go to Parliament. The Department was mindful of the upcoming September court ruling.

Mr Mashile asked if the re-zoning were to be finalised tomorrow, had budgetary allocations been decided on. What informed the particular route that refugee and asylum seekers utilised?

Mr Hoosen agreed with Mr Apleni’s assertion that the only difference between a South African and a refugee was the right to vote. It was a good idea to have a refugee reception centre close to the border, but was it smart to close existing centres? Where would those people go to renew their Section 22 permits after six months? They would have to travel to Pretoria. Congestion would be created.

He asked to what extent the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC) been involved in the process?  What was the building going to look like, and what was the budget?

Mr Apleni replied that it was difficult to deal with the matter, because it was before the courts. He explained the budget that the Department had was over a three year Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) period. The budget was for a temporary structure. There was also a baseline. This year, in general, four offices would be built and so forth.  The design of the Lebombo structure would be one symbolising respect and dignity. It would be state of the art. The 5.33 hectares of land provided an opportunity to provide a fitting structure. The plans still needed to be drawn up, and based on them, the process would then get under way. Treasury had not yet been approached. There was an infrastructure budget in the Department.

He emphasised that people who had applied for permits in Cape Town, for example, could still re-apply. However, if someone applied at another centre, they would have to go back and re-apply at that centre.

He said that there was a UNHRC meeting in Geneva, and the Council would be approached. If there were any gaps, the Department would welcome the feedback. There would be no problem in inviting the UNHRC to visit any of the centres.

Ms Maxon asked if corruption was being curbed.

Mr Hoosen asked for a straight answer -- even an estimate -- of what the centre was going to cost.

The Chairperson said the Department was still battling to acquire land, and then had to look at resources like water, electricity and so on. The DG had indicated that consultants to design the building had not yet been sourced. Once the re-zoning had been done, then the Department should provide the Committee with a report.

The issue of corruption was a standing item across the globe. It was the systems put in place that made the difference.

Mr Apleni responded that corruption was not being tolerated.

Ms T Kenye (ANC) asked what measures were in place to ensure that all officials at refugee centres followed all legislative processes.

Mr Hoosen insisted that the Committee be told what the estimated cost of the centre would be.

Ms Maxon agreed with Mr Hoosen, pointing out that if one was planning to do any project, an amount must surely be attached.

The Chairperson said it was clear that it would not help just to get a figure. Once the process was under way, the number might change. All that could be asked for was a general figure, based on the size of the land.

 The DA and the EFF continued to push for a figure.

Mr Apleni said a document would be coming to the Committee on 10 March, when the Department’s budget would be presented. In the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, only a feasibility costing had been provided for the Lebombo refugee reception office. This was amounted to R10 million for 2016/17 and R12 million for 2017/18.

The Department was excused from the meeting.

Committee business

Members adopted, without amendments, the minutes of the Committee dated 4 February 2015.

They adopted, with one amendment, the minutes dated 5 February 2015. The political party of Dr C Mulder had been wrongly captured.

Members adopted, without amendments, the minutes dated 6 February 2015.

They adopted, with one minor amendment, the Minutes of the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs dated 17February 2015.

Members adopted, with one minor amendment, the minutes dated 24 February 2015.

They also adopted, with amendments, minutes of the Committee dated 24 February 2015, where Members from the DA and the EFF stated that their objection to the nomination of the candidate for the vacancy at the Electoral Commission had not been noted.

The meeting was adjourned.

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