Cape Town Refugee Reception Centre: Meeting with Department of Home Affairs & Regional Representatives

Home Affairs

23 October 2007
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Meeting report

HOME AFFAIRS PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
24 October 2007
CAPE TOWN REFUGEE RECEPTION CENTRE: MEETING WITH DEPARTMENT OF HOME AFFAIRS AND REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVES

Chairperson:
Mr H Chauke (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Committee Report on Harbour Refugee Reception Centre Visit [available at
Committee Reports once published]

Audio recording of meeting

SUMMARY
The meeting was called to discuss the situation at the Cape Town Refugee Reception Centre, following on a visit by the Committee to the Centre, which revealed a number of problems. The Committee had called upon the Minister and Department to attend a meeting the previous day, which the Minister was unable to attend. There had been an increased number of refugees in response to a call from the Department of Home Affairs for these people to renew their permits by the end of October. The Refugee Reception Centre was battling to keep up with these applications, but systems were being put in place to deal with more applications. Refugees were being processed in batches, and a satellite office was being set up in the Barrack Street offices. Officials were working extended hours to deal with the long queues. A casual cleaner had been hired to assist with cleaning duties. The facility at Customs House had been criticized for being dirty and toilet facilities were poor.

Members were extremely critical as what was described as a lack of management at the facility. Members felt that the flood of applications should have been anticipated and provision made to cope. Criticism was levelled at the security of documents containing sensitive information. There had been a lack of management during the recent oversight visit. Members also wanted an explanation regarding the detention of a refugee in a cage. It was explained that this was done partly to protect the person due to allegations of theft, as other refugees had been assaulting him. There was no other detention facility on the premises. Members also questioned the lack of refugee camps closer to the borders.

The Director General acknowledged some shortcomings in the Department. There was a turnabout strategy in place but it would take several years before the services provided by the Department were satisfactory. Corruption was a major issue being combated. He did not agree that refugee centres should be established. Both he and Members of the Committee were committed to the maintenance of human rights and the dignity of all persons served by the Department.

MINUTES
The Chairperson noted that meeting had been held the previous day, which had not been attended by the Minister. She could not be present at this meeting, but other officials from the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and their provincial administration were present. It was incorrect to say that they had been summoned to appear before the Committee, as they had not yet arrived at that legal position. The purpose of the meeting was to assure the Committee that the situation at the Cape Town Refugee Reception Centre (RRC) was receiving attention.

Cape Town Refugee Reception Centre (RRC) in Cape Town: Briefing by Western Cape Provincial Department of Home Affairs
Ms Martha Mgxashe, Provincial Manager: Western Cape Department of Home Affairs, said that she had noticed an increased number of asylum seekers during the last few days. She had read a notice issued by DHA in the newspapers urging asylum seekers to renew their permits. Persons with pending applications had been instructed to report to their nearest Home Affairs office by 31 October 2007.

Ms Mgxashe said that measures had been taken to alleviate the pressure at the Cape Town RCC in the harbour. They would concentrate on serving women and the sick first. She had formulated a plan and consulted with the head office over it, and had received their full support. They would now go over to an implementation phase. Logistics had to be put in place. A big office was needed as a training room. The refugee reception office normally handled thirty to forty people per session.

She said that questionnaires had been distributed to clients waiting for service. Other assistance was given, and a key area was the provision of interpreters. A group of people had been sent from head office to assist. They were assisting with queue management. They were organising the queues as always, and then transporting people to the offices at Barrack Street where a larger area was available to process applications. She was informed that a non-governmental organisation (NGO) would not assist individuals. They also did not want long queues to form at Barrack Street. Instead groups of twenty to thirty would be taken there from the harbour.

Ms Mgxashe said that the DHA had started their planning on Thursday 18 October. Computers had been installed in the room at Barrack Street. On Friday the plan had been implemented, and tests had been conducted. As with any new plan, especially one reliant on technology, there were teething problems. The image capturing machine was not functioning well, but had now been fixed. The system had been effective from Monday 22 October, and 47 people had been served. A second machine would be installed. The integrated technology (IT) manager had needed to obtain spare parts. It was hoped that these would be installed that day, and more people could be taken in the following day.

Ms Mgxashe said that assistance was needed to keep peace and order. When the doors of the RCC were opened, people at the back of the queue began pushing and this created a ripple effect in the queue, creating the impression of chaos. She understood that all people wanted service. Queues started forming at 03h00. A plan would be announced publicly once she was satisfied that thing were running smoothly. A second image capturing machine would increase capacity. Members of the Committee would be invited to see how things were being done. This would take pressure off the staff at Customs House. A public announcement would be made the following Monday. People would only be served from Customs House; otherwise the offices at Barrack Street would be swamped. There was no open office at Customs House, and those that were there were small in space. This made it difficult to accommodate the numbers . She anticipated that the use of Barrack Street would be a temporary measure only.

The Chairperson said that a number of issues had been raised in the report of the Committee’s visit to Customs House. He agreed that the right approach was being taken.

Ms Y Mamane (ASD, Refugee Reception Office) said that three refugee officials were stationed on the ground floor at Customs House. The Cape Town regional manager had assisted. The building was opened at 05h00, and a hundred people would be admitted at that time. Staff were busy preparing files, and five sets of documents would be prepared to be sent to Barrack Street.

She said that, in terms of the state of cleanliness in the office, there were some problems. One of the cleaners had been promoted with a transfer to Graaff-Reinet. One cleaner had been borrowed from the provincial office. She had hired a casual worker for weekend work who would assist the cleaner that was present during the week.

Ms Mamane said that clients were becoming frustrated. They were admitted into the hall in batches of forty. It took about twenty minutes to process one applicant. She had requested the IT manager to install a computer which would deal with applications to extend permits. This was a bit of a problem, and she hoped that this operation would be running smoothly by the following week. Regarding identity documents, she said that an official came in at 06h30 with the security staff, and directed applicants into the correct queue.

The Chairperson said that various issues had been raised in the findings of the Committee. Home affairs needed to deal with day-to-day issues. He asked what systems were in place to ensure co-ordination, monitoring and supervision. The visit had shown a lack of management and planning. The officials were dispersed over several floors in the building.

Ms Mamane said that Mr Bester had been appointed to supervise operations on the ground floor. Mr Bam dealt with security and cleaners. Mr George was in charge of the refugee status determination office on the fifth floor.

Discussion
Mr F Beukman (ANC) asked if the situation was similar to the one at Marabastad. A model had been created there. He had heard the report and the Committee’s evaluation. The task team was five months into its work. He asked if there were any milestones to see whether DHA was on the road to recovery, and if the plan at Marabastad was being implemented, and if there was any intention to implement this in the Western Cape. If the plan was being implemented, he wanted to know if it was in the design or implementation phase.

Mr M Sibande (ANC) said that it was correct to have a queue manager. From his visit to Customs House he had discovered that various national groups were forcing the issue of who could get help in favour of their compatriots. He asked if anyone was ensuring that all persons were being helped. Guidance was needed on whether there was enough machinery and staff. From the Committee’s findings, he asked if there were any arrangements to control the illegal usage of offices and equipment, especially the telephones, which was resulting in high bills. He asked if there was an amicable solution.

Mr N Mathebe (ANC) said that the management at Customs House was useless and reactive rather than proactive. They were reacting to protests. He asked what had been done in the past and to address the ongoing situation, which was dreadful. The toilets were not useable. Documents were scattered on the floor. He asked how often the regional director had visited the facility before the protest action had started, as he had the impression that there had been no visits, and that nothing had been done to check up. The Director General (DG) must do something very quickly. People had to be taught how to do their jobs.

Mr W Skhosana (ANC) agreed that the issue was of great concern. He also asked what had been happening. The RRC had been there for years, and he wondered how matters had been handled in the past. On the question of training, there was a delicate situation as they were dealing with foreigners. He asked if training was relevant, and what the level was. He then tackled the issue of security, which had not been mentioned in the report. He asked what the relations were with the security company and if there were signed contracts in place. He asked if all were doing their jobs. On the subject of cleaning, he noted that someone was employed on a weekend. He asked if the area was only cleaned on weekends, and if that area needed to be clean all the time.

Dr S Huang (ANC) noted that there was no apology for the non-attendance at the meeting the previous day. He asked if this was a mistake. He agreed with the previous speaker that the RRC was more than four years old, and he wondered why there was no improvement. He asked if there would be any disciplinary measures for mistakes made. No manager had been in sight during the Committee’s oversight visit. There was a big office, but the department’s capacity was poor. The next time the Committee visited the facility it should be unannounced.

Ms I Mars (IFP) commented on conditions on the ground floor at Customs house. She was grateful that the NGO had stepped in. There was a South African Police Services (SAPS) office on the third floor, and she asked why the DHA office was not allowed to make use of their services. If government agencies shared a building, she asked why they did not share their services. She had not attended the oversight visit, but asked where management had been.

Mr M Lowe (DA) also did not attend the oversight visit, but had visited the office on two other occasions as well as offices in Pretoria and Durban. He agreed that human rights should be respected and dignity preserved. He acknowledged that this was difficult when the Department did not have the means to provide proper facilities. He felt the need to take a step backwards. The problem with refugees would get worse before it got better. South Africa was a beacon of hope for Africans. The country represented an opportunity to survive despite the high unemployment and crime rates . It was an impossible situation at RRC at present. He pondered what the causes of the problem were.

Mr Lowe said that South Africa’s borders should be better secured. Transit camps were needed closer to the border. Some people were walking all the way from their point of crossing the border to Cape Town. This did not make sense. The border would never be totally secure, and South Africa was the place many wished to go. Officials knew nothing about refugees. The situation at Customs House was inexcusable, but support was needed there. The DA had some suggestions. He had often found it difficult to engage with staff despite identifying himself as a Member of Parliament. In fact, he had often felt unwelcome.

Mr Sibande commented on the issue of the invitation issued by the Committee. DHA was accountable to the Committee, and the Committee did not have to be apologetic about the matter, as it had every right to call the DHA to appear before the Committee at any time. The Committee wanted to assist, as the image of the country was suffering. The Department was aware that South Africa was committed to human rights protocols.

The Chairperson was curious about the duties of security personnel.

Ms Mgxashe said that it was not true that certain national groups were getting preferential treatment. Service was strictly on the basis of the order of people in the queue. It was coincidental if it so happened that a group of people of the same nationality were standing together in a queue. People were admitted to the building on the basis of numbers. The DHA had always worked with stakeholders such as the NGO which was assisting with crowd control, and had previously assisted with crowd control at imbizos. It was government policy to work with community organisations. They would grasp the opportunity with both hands. The NGO would help to prevent illegal activities. Security would ensure that there was no foul play. The DHA instructed these organisations.

The Chairperson asked for clarity on the borrowed cleaner.

Ms Mamane said that a submission had been tendered the previous year for an extra cleaner. They could not wait for the submission to be approved, and that was why a casual cleaner had been hired. They had required another person to assist the normal cleaner.

Ms Mgxashe said that the building belonged to the Department of Public Works, and they were supposed to provide cleaning staff. Their cleaner only came late in the afternoon. The Home Affairs office had one cleaner, and another had been seconded from the provincial office. On the weekend, all the cleaners from the Cape Town office were used to scrub the building thoroughly so that it was clean for Monday. There were large numbers - up to 500 at any one time - of people moving through the building, and it was difficult to keep it spotless. Rubbish bins were soon overflowing. One cleaner was very passionate about keeping the toilets clean, and this was done almost daily. Extra toilets had been put outside. There was definitely room for improvement.

Mr W Kelly-Glicker, Operations Manager, Fidelity Security, said that eight security guards were employed at the Home Affairs premises in the Customs House. Two were stationed on the fifth floor. Their main duty was access and crowd control. Two were stationed at the main entrance, two at the entrance to the refugee office and one at Barrack Street. The remaining guard controlled the situation inside the building. On 17 October a security officer on duty at the entrance saw an asylum seeker being assaulted. He had no jurisdiction outside the building. Mr Hanekom of Fidelity Security had been approached. The person being assaulted had allegedly stolen a cellular phone. He was taken inside. The toilet was the only place where he could be locked away, in a lockable cage, and this was done partially for his own protection.

The Chairperson asked Mr Kelly-Glicker when last he had been in the toilet, and if it could be used to detain a person. He felt that it was impossible to spend more than five minutes in the toilet in its condition.

Mr Kelly-Glicker replied that he had never used the toilet, and did not think a person could stay in there for long.

Mr Mavuse Msimang, Director General, National DHA,said there was absolutely no need for a filthy office. If this was the case then management was immediately to blame. This did not absolve him from any responsibility, as he was accountable as DG. There was no doubt that some things were happening due to mismanagement. Members of the Committee were more aware than others of the state of affairs. Both the Auditor General and the Committee had made findings on the situation. There was clear evidence that DHA was not functioning properly. The long queues in different offices bore testimony to this. All clients were entitled to their human rights.

He said that he could summarise the problem. DHA was plagued by corruption, incompetence and a lack of capacity. Attitude was a problem as was poor training in terms of systems, IT and processes. This was what had prompted the Minister to ask for co-operation. The DHA’s reaction was to mount an effort to correct the situation, but this would be a long-term effort. He was looking at years rather than days. DHA dealt with civic issues such as enabling documents. Corruption was particularly prevalent with documents, and the high numbers were due to so many people seeking opportunities in South Africa.

The DG said that it was unfortunate that the Department had not been able to present on its turnaround strategy, which addressed issues in terms of scope, timing and prioritisation. These were material to the resolution of the situation. He described the situation at the Rosslyn offices. Files were left unsorted on the floor. These had to do with residence permits. They had to be converted into electronic documents before they could be processed. Time, resources and money were needed to correct the situation, and the estimated amount of money needed was R2 million.

Mr Msimang expected that the DHA would continue to attract bad press reports for another five years. However he conceded that there was no excuse for filth and a lackadaisical attitude. There were serious disciplinary matters under investigation. He would report to the media on these matters. It was, however, easier to deal with criminal matters than capacity issues. The turnaround strategy addressed a level higher than cleanliness or a refugee being locked in a toilet. This was a subset of problems associated with the immigration branch. Refugees should enjoy a high profile. The problem had been embarked upon. There was a problem with congestion, poor IT, process and non-linkage. Refugees might apply for residence permits at one branch, and then move on to another if this application failed.

He said that information on these issues was known. The office in Rosettenville had moved to better premises at Crown Mines, and this had increased capacity fourfold. It was also easing the load on Marabastad. Eighty refugee status determination officers had been appointed. This was increasing the DHA’s capacity. There were over 550 DHA offices. These included ports of entry, service points and other facilities. It was a challenge to outfit all of these. It took time to appoint staff. The labour regime was partly responsible although it was good that employees were protected. The assistance programme could perhaps have started at the Cape Town RRC, but there were many factors involved. All bodies were on the same side. He could not condone corruption. This was mainly perpetuated by crime syndicates, and could not be permitted.

On the question of dealing with entrants into the country, Mr Msimang said that there were no refugee centres in the border regions. He did not think these would work. It was also not the responsibility of the DHA to police the borders. This was the work of the South African Revenue Services and South African National Defence Force. Once inside the country, it was correct that refugees should enjoy freedom of movement.

Mr Msimang said that there was a need to improve systems which would shorten the queues. Better systems would achieve this. When people were deported and re-entered the country, they were treated as fresh entrants. Prospective refugees had 180 days to report to a refugee centre for assessment. Some did not feel like doing this, and only reported on the 179th day of their stay. Support systems were needed. Specific details would be provided at a later meeting.

Ms M Maunye (ANC) commented that DHA and SAPS were both in the Customs House building, and yet when the SAPS had been approached, DHA had been told to call 10111 for assistance. She asked how good working relationships between the different government bodies could be ensured.

Mr Skhosana asked about the security company. He asked how often management looked into the challenge of security. This was not the first, and would not be the last incident of this nature. He asked if this specific incident had ever been discussed and if so, what the result of the discussion had been.

Mr Mathebe asked on whose instructions the person had been locked in. He asked if he had been detained until the stolen telephone had been recovered or until such time as he would have handed over to the police. It seemed that the security officials had tried and sentenced this person.

Mr Lowe said he appreciated the candour of the DG. He confirmed his support for Mr Msimang as well as that of his party. There was no doubt that South African citizens were as entitled to human rights as foreign visitors. He said the DA offices were becoming a virtual help desk for refugees. He hoped that there would be a further report to the Committee again soon.

Mr Msimang replied that performance would be made visible. There would be a review of contracts and service level agreements. Payments should not be made if there was no performance. The SAPS had been asked to act in collaboration with DHA. The media were present at this meeting. When people in the DHA were arrested, they were suspended until their cases were resolved. The standpoint of labour organisations was that employment should not be terminated until that person had been proved to be guilty. There was co-operation at certain levels.

The Chairperson asked about the person who had been locked in the cage. He asked who had given this instruction, and if there was no other place to detain him. There would still be engagement on other issues. Even if these people were alleged to have broken the law, there was still an international law in place on the treatment of asylum seekers. He asked what training was given to the eight guards. He asked why the security guard had been called in this case. He had a problem with this arrangement. Many of the security personnel employed at various places in the harbour had been arrested at some stage. Syndicates operated there. He asked what would happen if this person decided to sue DHA. This was not the way to treat a refugee. The Committee, in fulfilling its oversight role, had a responsibility to look into how the relevant Department worked and its budget.

Mr Mathebe asked if there was a long term contract with the security company.

The Chairperson noted that the DG must deal with this issue, and he was busy conducting a review which would be presented at the next meeting.

Mr Kelly-Glicker said he did not know who had given the instruction to detain the alleged thief. Mr Hanekom had asked the Fidelity guards to remove the person from the crowd. The stolen phone had not been found on him. He had only found out about the person’s detention when he had gone to his office.

The Chairperson asked if this form of detention was used often.

Mr Kelly-Glicker replied that this was the only place that they had to detain a suspect. He did not know if it had been used for this purpose before. A suitable detention area would have to be found for any future cases.

Mr Msimang commented on media reports that the Minister was reluctant to appear before the Committee. There had been a meeting with the Minister that morning. The factually incorrect statement in the media should be corrected.

Mr Lowe asked why the Minister had failed to appear on two previous occasions.

The Chairperson interrupted, saying that he would not allow this question to be posed. The matter would be left for later.

The Chairperson said that problems had been identified. The DHA was addressing the challenges it faced. The Committee expected them to deal with matters urgently. They would not allow this kind of treatment to be forced on refugees. They should not have to toyi-toyi outside DHA offices for service delivery. A positive response was needed and there was a need to see more being done. His office was collecting reports, and these would be worked on for the next meeting, which the Minister would attend.

The Chairperson said that the issue of management rested on the responsible people doing their jobs. The Committee could not allow things to collapse due to mismanagement. People were employed to manage, to supervise or to deliver services. This was clearly not happening. The Committee had serious concerns about this. In fact, if people collected a salary while not doing their jobs properly it was tantamount to fraud. He said that properly trained members were needed, and relevant programmes should be introduced through the DHA.

Another concern was the handling of official documents. These contained photographs and fingerprints. There was no security or control of these documents. The Department needed to report on how it was doing in improving this situation. The Committee would also monitor the situation.

He said that the practice of locking people in makeshift cells must end. The Committee condemned this action strongly. The person had been locked in the toilet for three hours. The police had not been called and no charge had been laid. The Committee could not strongly enough emphasise the co-operation needed at this level. It would not have been correct to arrest all the people involved at the demonstration in the harbour, as this would have harmed South Africa’s image. The government could not allow the situation to degenerate to the extent that the country would become another banana republic. Nevertheless, he complimented the DHA on the good work that it was doing.

The meeting was adjourned.

 

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