Plight of Refugees in South Africa: hearings

Home Affairs

29 August 2005
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report

30 August 2005

Mr H Chauke (ANC)

Documents handed out
Submission by Mr Jean Berchmans Musole, a Congolese refugee (written, not presented)
International Human Rights and Development submission (written, not presented)
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees briefing
SA Human Rights Commission oral briefing
Introduction by Refugee Project Director
Letter from Law Society of South Africa
Submission by the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum (ZSF)
Refugee and Asylum Seekers Children Assist Project submission
Olusegun Obasanjo's Peace and Reconciliation Committee
Ogoni Solidarity Forum to Activists and Civil Society Organizations in Cape Town
Appeal for support for the Ogoni Community on exile
Department research summary on refugee asylum; "In need of protection"

The Committee heard a briefing from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the rights of refugees, and the obligations of the host country as stipulated in various international laws. Individual refugees and asylum seekers from various African countries also voiced their concerns. These ranged from the problems they encountered when they applied for the necessary documentation to problems accessing services such as health, social security, education, jobs, and banking.

The briefing by the Director-General of Social Services in the Western Cape dealt mainly with services that could be offered by the Department. These included the provision of Identity Documents to the children of refugees. The Department funded various programmes like the Cape Town Refugee Centre.

In the afternoon session, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) made two main recommendations. Firstly, it recommended the establishment of a refugee council. The council should be made up of government and non-governmental organisations, including refugees. This was standard practise in many refugee-receiving countries all over the world. The purpose of the council would be to discuss, formulate and implement strategies for dealing with the realities faced by refugees. Secondly, it was recommended that an inter-governmental body dedicated to refugee-related matters be established. The purpose of the body would be to facilitate inter-departmental coordination, as well as coordination between the different tiers and different levels of Government on the issue of refugees.


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees briefing
Mr Mbalini, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that his organisation’s scope of operation was limited to the protection of refugees. Compared to countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and the Congo, South Africa had fewer refugees. The legal framework for asylum seekers enabled them to obtain a transit permit of 14 days, which expired very quickly. After the expiry of the permit, refugees and asylum seekers were regarded as illegal immigrants. This predicament had always put them in great danger. He felt that there was an urgent need for an increase in personnel and resources. Foreign nationals without proper documentation were treated in a subhuman manner. The identity document that was given to foreign nationals was maroon in colour compared to the green document used by South African citizens. The different colour meant that asylum seekers did not have access to public services like hospitals.

Mr Mbalini said it was difficult for refugee children to get a proper education because most parents could not afford school fees. The UNHCR recommended that refugee children should get free primary education as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The South African government should consider a possible extension of Social Security to the refugee population. The Refugee Relief Fund should be re-opened, which could be used to empower refugees through co-operatives and self-help schemes. The Department of Home Affairs should issue refugees with a letter that stated that they were eligible for employment. Employers were unlikely to trust people who were in transit. There was a need for mechanisms that could be used to recognise foreign qualifications.

Mr Mbalini reported that some South Africans felt that there were too many refugees that were taking jobs and resources from citizens. This had resulted in xenophobia and hatred and even deaths. The reality was different as refugees were contributing to the development of South Africa with their skills and expertise in different fields. He recommended that the Department of Home Affairs should train its personnel in appropriate means of dealing with refugees and more immigration officers should be employed. A mass communication strategy should be launched to educate the broader public on the plight of refugees and asylum seekers.

Refugee inputs (all oral presentations only)
A Burundian national who was studying nursing at the University of Western Cape, said that he had travelled more than 2000 kilometres to South Africa. Life without a job in South Africa was a daily struggle for a foreigner. His problems all centred on the unavailability of proper documentation. For instance, he could not access student financial assistance because he did not have a South African ID.

Mr Abdool, a Somalian national had been in South Africa for more than 9 years with his wife and children. He was promised a smart card by the Department of Home Affairs as a form of Identity Document, but the one offered to asylum seekers differed from the normal document. That amounted to discrimination against the refugee population. Mr Abdool had been working as a manager for a South African company for many years, but he had not been granted permanent citizenship. More than 15 Somalian refugees had been murdered in the Cape Town area alone, and those cases had been reported to the police. The police had never taken up the cases. He recommended that the Committee should do something about the problems facing his community.

Mr Chimba, a Rwandan, asked what the criteria were for processing applications because he wanted to know why it took between 1 and 2 years before receiving acknowledgement of application let alone the required documents.

A Congolese refugee wanted to know why everything was done in Pretoria rather than decentralising the processing of documents to the regional offices and municipalities.

Mr Oliver, a marketing student at the University of Cape Town, asked about the differences between an immigrant and a refugee, because the Department of Home Affairs treated them the same. A Rwandan refugee complained that she found it very difficult to be integrated into South African society. She had been living in South Africa since 1997, but she had to wait in the same line as someone who had entered the country recently. Her son could not go to study in Scotland because he had no passport; when he applied for a passport he was told to go to his own country. Her younger children could not attend school because they did not have birth certificates.

Mr Mbalini replied that South Africa contained a wide variety of foreigners some of whom were immigrants who came of their own free will. The refugees and asylum seekers were forced by security circumstances in their countries of origin. They were protected by certain international treaties. He encouraged refugees to make use of free legal advice offered by the University of Cape Town Legal Clinic.

The Chairperson said that the Committee noted all the problems, but the Department of Home Affairs would respond to criticism levelled at them. Hearings on the plight of refugees would also be held in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng and recommendations would be made by the Committee.

A Congolese refugee said that Chinese and Pakistani nationals were treated differently because they had money to bribe officials. Banks discriminated against black African immigrants and refugees because they could not even open bank accounts. He asked whether the UN was giving money to the South African government for dealing with refugees.

Mr Mbalini said the role of the UNHCR was to capacitate local NGOs so that they could be responsible for the well being of refugees. It was not true that money had been given to the Government. The South African government had been contributing to the UNHCR; especially for the repatriation of Angolans and the peace process in the Great Lakes Region.

A Congolese refugee declared his pride for his country. He said he was not a "Kwere-kwere" and most of the refugees were working as security guards. While some of them had finished the training course, they had a problem securing jobs because they had no IDs.

Mr Patrice Emanuelle from Burundi said that refugees had been making a major contribution to the development of the South African economy and poverty alleviation. He cited examples of shops that were run by foreigners in Langa, employing South Africans. He felt the Government should recognise the efforts of the refugee community and support them financially.

An Australian of Chinese descent asked what the South African Government was doing to help refugees. Mr Mbalini replied that the South African Government had contributed a quarter million dollars to the UNHCR and the money was used to fund shelters, legal aid for refugees, and education programmes. The UNHCR did not give handouts, but they had extended training to Social Workers because they were the ones who first came into contact with refugees.

Western Cape Department briefing
Ms Kristin Kiviets, Director-General of Social Services in the Western Cape, gave an oral presentation (no written document available). She said that provinces were bound to operate within the confines of national laws that stated that refugees did not qualify as recipients of Social Security, but children of refugees were eligible for the Foster Parent Grant, IDs and Birth Certificates. South Africa had ratified the International Protocols on Child Labour and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Department of Social Services had been funding the Cape Town Refugee Centre and had established 16 District Offices, which contained child protection registers.

SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) briefing
In the afternoon session, Ms Z Majodina, South African Human Rights Commissioner, made two main recommendations. Firstly, it recommended the establishment of a refugee council. The council should be made up of government and non-governmental organisations, including refugees. This was standard practise in many refugee-receiving countries all over the world. The purpose of the council would be to discuss, formulate and implement strategies for dealing with the realities faced by refugees. Secondly, it was recommended that an inter-governmental body dedicated to refugee-related matters be established. The purpose of the body would be to facilitate inter-departmental co-ordination, as well as coordination between the different tiers and levels of government on the issue of refugees.

The SAHRC indicated that there were many highly qualified refugees in the country who could not find gainful employment as they did not have the R6 000 to have their qualifications evaluated. The SAHRC also told the Committee that it had a legal service that rendered services to refugees free of charge, but that it was not getting the anticipated response from the refugee community. The service was run from the SAHRC’s Adderley Street, Cape Town offices.

Mr M Sikakane (ANC) commented that refugees should remember that South Africa was unique in the African context as it had enshrined the rights of refugees as human beings in its Constitution. Thus, should there be incidents of targeted abuse, the refugee community should not associate it with the South African government, or with the broader public, but see it as an isolated incident.

Mr W Skhosana (ANC) commented favourably on the many ways in which the refugee community had been able to integrate with South Africans. He stated that xenophobia was everywhere and but that South Africa compared favourably in this regard with a country like the USA, which he held to be the most xenophobic.

Mr K Morwamoche (ANC) asked if anything ever came of former President Mandela’s proposal that all foreigners that were In the country before 1994 should be allowed to apply for citizenship. He related that Home Affairs was being inundated by Zimbabweans applying for asylum under the name ‘Jonathan Moyo’. He asked how this situation was being dealt with.

Ms N Mathibela (ANC) expressed concern over reports of children of refugees being turned away at public schools. She asked whether the SAHRC was active in preventing the occurrence of such instances.

The SAHRC indicated that there had indeed been a call by the former President for an amnesty for pre-1994 refugees to apply for citizenship. This referred to Mozambicans only, however. The opportunity was made available to these Mozambican citizens, but the response was very poor. The SAHRC was of the opinion that it had not been communicated properly. These Mozambicans had generally integrated extremely well, especially in their initial areas of settlement, such as Gazankulu. Difficulties experienced by this grouping arose only after they left their initial settlements and moved to other parts of the country.

The SAHRC acknowledged that wanton abuse of the asylum application process was a problem. There were five offices that dealt with these applications. They were situated in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. As there was no real-time, on-line coordination between these locations, the authorities had difficulty in containing the problem of "bogus" asylum applications.

The SAHRC stated that it was illegal to refuse a child education on the basis of the child’s refugee status. This was one instance where the SAHRC would not hesitate to provide legal assistance free of charge. Presentations had also been made to Education officials in this regard. In Gauteng, the SAHRC had concluded a formal agreement with the Provincial Education Department to this effect. The SAHRC also actively monitored the numbers of refugee children of school-going age in certain geographical locations so that it could provide sufficient warning to schools to create the necessary capacity.

Refugee community comments
Mr Ami Bamoka from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) thanked the Government for accommodating the refugee community and for allowing discussion of their plight in Parliament. He lauded the Government’s policies on the refugee question. Though he regarded policy implementation as a problem area, he found the progress made in this regard impressive for a country which had such a short history of democratic rule. He expressed the opinion that there was an opportunity for South Africa in facilitating the smooth integration of refugees into the country, as many of them were skilled and thus able to help build the economy.

Mr Bamoka equated the derogatory, xenophobic terms which refugees were confronted with on the street to the racist terms that were used by South Africans against one another during Apartheid. He requested that active steps be taken to eradicate such behaviour on the part of South Africans.

Mr Bamoka implored fellow refugees to know their rights and to do their best to integrate with and contribute to their communities in their adopted country. Foreigners could only expect the loyalty of South Africans if they were loyal to South Africans in the first place. This would be the only way to assist South Africans to overcome their fear of refugees, which was based on nothing other than the fear of the unknown.

An unidentified South African voluntary refugee worker from Bon Esperance cautioned against the ostracisation of refugees purely on the grounds of their status. She saw this as grossly unfair, especially since Africa was the common denominator of all. She told the Committee that regardless of South Africa’s legislative advances with regards to refugees, their plight had remained much the same as the necessary intermediary infrastructure was still lacking.

An unidentified woman related that since she had grown up in the DRC, South Africa had proved the lesser of two evils, as refugees faced similar abuse in her native Angola. Various other participants echoed her when she related the difficulties caused by the two-year validity period of Identity Documents that were issued to refugees, regardless of the amount of time they had spent in the country. In her experience, refugees often had to face abuse and harassment from municipal and South African police officers. She related that she had been self-employed since she came to South Africa twelve years ago. She had also created numerous employment opportunities for South Africans. Yet, it was not possible for her to obtain a loan to finance further business pursuits.

An unidentified man expressed his concern over refugee accommodation. He told the Committee that many refugees were working as security guards, earning salaries as low as R1 200 per month. It was sometimes impossible to get accommodation for less than R700 – R1000 per room. On occasion up to three couples would have to share such accommodation.

The SAHRC welcomed the recognition of South Africa’s status as a young democracy. It also pointed out that the refugee regime was younger still. The Refugee Act only came into being in 1998. This indicated how little time there had been to bring about full rights-based implementation of the Act and all other provisions. Xenophobia was a universal phenomenon and could be overcome with education, but this would take time. It was stated that previously disadvantaged South Africans, because of their past experience in this country, should be much more understanding of the effects of discrimination.

Ethnic origin was one of the grounds, enshrined in Section 9 of the Constitution, against which no one should be discriminated against. The recent Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act makes provision for redress for unfair discrimination through the new Equality Courts. This indicated that there was recourse for refugees. It was the responsibility of every refugee to know her or his rights under South African law, and to claim them.

The SAHRC acknowledged the problem of refugee accommodation and stated that the possibility of refugee centres was being investigated.

The meeting was adjourned.


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