Department Activites and Lindela Situation: Minister’s briefing

Home Affairs

23 August 2005
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Meeting report

HOME AFFAIRS PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
24 August 2005
DEPARTMENT ACTIVITES AND LINDELA SITUATION: MINISTER’S BRIEFING


Chairperson: Mr H Chauke (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Committee report

SUMMARY
The Minister of Home Affairs provided an update on recent developments at the Lindela Refugee Centre and other pertinent issues related to asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. The Department would brief the Committee in due course on outcomes of investigations and organisational restructuring. The backlog of residency applications would be tackled in a specific project. A Commission of Inquiry had been established to investigate a spate of deaths at the Lindela Holding Facility. The final report would be circulated to Members and the Inquiry would be conducted in a transparent manner. Members appreciated the input from the Minister and pledged support to the Department in the attempts to resolve the crisis. The Committee would hold a public hearing on refugees on Tuesday the following week.

MINUTES
The Chairperson stated that the meeting had intended to update Members on the latest developments within the Department. Controversial recent developments within the Lindela Refugee Centre had however been prioritised.

Minister’s briefing
Minister N Mapisa-Nqakula welcomed the interaction and acknowledged the recent visits by Members to various Home Affairs offices. The Director-General would be instructed to brief the Committee in the near future. The failure of Department officials to attend a Committee meeting on 23 August 2005 would be addressed and the resolutions of the Committee had been noted and would be implemented. The Department remained committed to assisting the Committee in carrying out its mandate and recognised the importance of its oversight function.

She added that two pronouncements would soon be made. The first related to the management of the international obligations of the government towards refugees. Official statistics regarding the numbers of refugees and the backlogs in applications were problematic. Poor Department interventions to deal with application backlogs had undermined their moral and legal obligations towards refugees. Certain applicants had been waiting for at least ten years to receive their confirmation of status. The failure to confirm status resulted in poor living conditions for refugees. Bureaucratic inefficiencies caused a delay in the deportation of individuals that did not qualify for permanent residency. A six-month programme would be initiated from next month to address the application backlog. The extent of the backlog would be determined and current applications fast-tracked. Project preparations were underway and new premises had been identified. The UNHCR and other stakeholders had pledged support. The project added to existing efforts to re-organise the Department's refugee section and to impose a better human rights culture.

About 30 000 previous rejections of residency applications had been returned into the application system, thereby inflating the numbers of applicants. The rejected applicants should have been deported. The Refugee Directorate had experienced operational difficulties for some time and capacity would be improved. The Backlog Project would systematically reduce the delay in applications over a six-month period. An average of six applications per day could be processed by Status Determination Officers. Tertiary level legal clinics had been approached to assist and volunteers would be incorporated into the programme. A national response to the crisis was required. Some of the refugees now qualified for permanent residence and their status should be confirmed.

Present statistics were not reliable and 100 000 asylum seekers could be within South Africa's borders. Recent deaths within the Lindela holding facility had been disturbing and a proper investigation was needed to establish the facts. An independent Commission of Inquiry would be set up to investigate the deaths and determine whether proper procedures and instructions had been followed. Recommendations would be forwarded to the Ministry on systems and protocols to deal with illegal immigrants. The Commission had started work on 8 August 2005 and a first report and recommendations would be provided in early September. The Department's Legal Services division would assist the investigation. Seriously ill individuals would not be admitted to Lindela in future, but be referred to appropriate medical facilities or remain within their communities. The report would be public so that the general citizenry could understand the challenges that the government faced in dealing with the refugee crisis. Issues such as refugees seeking medical assistance in South Africa had to be debated. The Department would pay for postmortems of the deceased within Lindela to determine their causes of death. The final report would be forwarded to the Committee on completion. The Department would brief Members in due course on the latest developments.

Discussion
Mr S Swart (DA) appreciated the openness of the Minister. He clarifed whether 30 000 files of rejected applicants were in circulation within the system. He made the distinction between natural and unnatural deaths and asked whether any unnatural deaths had been included in the recent incidents. Unnatural deaths required inquests to determine the cause of death.

Ms I Mars (IFP) also thanked the Minister for her level of openness. The conveyed information would assist Members in responding to questions within their constituencies.

The Minister responded that the recent deaths were all natural due to disease. Postmortems had been conducted in the interests of transparency - three deaths in one week was an unusual occurrence. The Department sought to prevent accusations of a possible cover-up by conducting a public investigation. Knowledge of the causes of death would be made available to the families of the deceased. She referred to cases where refugees had approached the authorities to seek deportation in order to organise ‘a free trip home’. The Department faced many similar problems that hindered progress. The Commission would generate a better understanding of the context and challenges within the refugee sector.

The Chairperson stated that certain Members had recently visited the Lindela facility and received a presentation from the management. The conditions within the facility were satisfactory and Members eagerly awaited the Commission's final report to confirm their own findings and initiate further debate. The applications backlog remained a concern and public hearings on asylum seekers and refugees would be held on Tuesday the following week. The hearings would facilitate interaction with civil society groups. The Committee programme would be adjusted to allow feedback on the Commission's report.

The Minister referred to incidents of xenophobia within the Eastern Cape directed at Somalian refugees. Recent interaction with the group had revealed the challenges they faced in attempting to acquire permanent residency. The lack of permanent status impacted adversely on living standards and business opportunities. Two members of their community had been murdered by criminals intent on robbery. The community was not serviced by Home Affairs mobile units and they received inadequate assistance at the Port Elizabeth offices. Various types of mistreatment had been experienced, including fraud and corruption. International conventions were in place to assist refugees and reduce levels of xenophobia, so the government had an obligation to address the needs of refugees.

The meeting was adjourned.

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