Asylum seekers’ desperate wait at Home Affairs office

Applicants wait for weeks for papers to be renewed

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Photo of queue
A Home Affairs representative collects asylum seekers’ documents last Thursday, beginning from the middle of the women’s queue. Photo: Trevor Bohatch

Every day, dozens of asylum seekers queue outside the regional Home Affairs office at Customs House in Cape Town to get their temporary permits renewed. Most of them are unsuccessful.

The Home Affairs branch only services applications for asylum status. The site is marked by high fencing topped with barbed wire, forcing applicants to queue just off the premises under a lifted section of the N2. There are no restrooms. Vendors have set up shop selling warm drinks and food to applicants who will wait all day.

When GroundUp visited the site last Thursday, dozens of people were queuing.

“You stand in a queue from five o’clock and after standing in a queue they open around eight,” Pierre*, a 37-year-old Congolese refugee, told GroundUp. He had visited Home Affairs twice in the past week with no success. “After opening at eight o’clock they take papers, they don’t care who came first or who came last and then they go inside.”

Refugees say Home Affairs personnel take the temporary permits of everyone in the queue but then call only five to ten applicants into Customs House over the course of the whole day. The overwhelming majority must wait outside the building until the late afternoon when the department’s workers re-emerge to return their documents with no decision, often citing “missing files.”

Those who leave without new permits are not given any document to show that they applied. Yet without the extension of their permits, asylum seekers are technically in South Africa illegally and risk deportation.

All the refugees GroundUp spoke to on Thursday had renewed their permits at the Customs House facility in Cape Town in the past and did not understand the delays.

“They are looking for our files from morning to evening, but everything is in the system,” said Barbara*, a 32-year-old Zimbabwean refugee. “Why do they still want a file? Even when they get the file, when they want to renew your paper they will just take your old paper and say, ‘put your finger here.’ Once I put my finger down everything will show, all my information is in the system.“

“I am illegal,” said Michel*, a 39-year-old Congolese refugee who had been returning to the Customs House facility for over a month. “If I get caught by police I am going to get locked up, and if I get locked up I am going to present my document and they are going to say, ‘well, it’s been expired for the last five weeks.’”

Refugees may also lose their rights to education, healthcare and employment once their papers expire. Their bank accounts may be frozen.

“When you go to the clinic, they ask you where your papers are and they check the date and see it is expired,” said Ahmed*, a 29-year-old Somali refugee who has been in South Africa for six years. “They can’t help you because you don’t have proper papers.”

Marie*, a 33-year-old Congolese refugee whose papers had been expired for nearly five weeks, said this was affecting the care of her four-year-old, diabetic son. She had been forced to take out two loans to pay rent and buy sugar-free food and insulin for her son.

“All we ask is for our papers to be renewed so that we can go look for a job,” she said.

Marie said Home Affairs representatives had returned her papers with no updates again at the end of the day on Thursday. Without explanation, they told her to return on 11 April to try again.

She likened the bureaucratic process at Home Affairs to her former home in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “It’s like I’m just in the same situation.”

“If there was peace and stability back home, there would be no point in us being here,” said Michel. “I fled from persecution, but some days I feel like I would be better back home.”

Thabo Mokgola, a Home Affairs spokesperson, denied that rate of processing was as slow as claimed. He said that the number of asylum seekers made it impossible for them all to be accommodated in the building at the same time. He also said issues regarding the filing of asylum seekers’ information had been “noted” and that measures were “in place to resolve the issue in due course”. He invited applicants “experiencing challenges” to “escalate the matter” with Home Affairs staff.

*Not their real names

Comment by Home Affairs was added after publication. 

TOPICS:  Immigration

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

I just wonder if Refugees /Asylum office department staff are working like they are not monitored by the government principal bodies or they are not paid salaries because the staff are always do their own thing. The sad moment is when you find most of the staff are busy chatting on phones. Others are busy conversing with colleagues and yet they report at work very late, not minding if a crowd of refugees are suffering outside in the cold.

The excuse of losing files is due to their laziness. How can you lose a file for a case which is supposed to be attended to every six months for asylum or four years for a full refugee, yet that period is long enough to put the file in safekeeping. The answer to this is that they leave files laying there on the floor with no one to organise them because of their laziness.

Other concerns are that we don't know if department affairs principal managers are heartless or just careless. How can you let women with babies queue in the same line with big angry suffering men outside in the cold morning weather just for renewing papers? Yet South Africa claims to respect human rights and woman rights or child abuse! This is horrible really! i have a female friend here in Cape Town who has a one-week-old baby and she's travelling all the way to Pretoria in two weeks time to renew her expired asylum paper.

Dear Editor

I have seen it with my eyes how badly they are treated in Pretoria. They will just sit the whole day and help 10 people and tell the others to go to return again with a given date. in doing so next time when you return they will arrest you and deport you while it is their fault. I am a South African and I see how my fellow brothers and sisters at Home Affairs want money only to help foreigners.

Dear Editor

I really thank you for sharing this story to people who don't know the problem refugees have but please visit on Friday. That is the day for Somalis. There are some officials who take money but you can't find out who it goes to.

Dear Editor

Thank you for this section.

Foreingers, when they seek for asylum, are told to submit their passports and asylum papers. The asylum permit is renewed once or twice and then you are told you have been rejected and you are an illegal migrant. But they keep your passport.

People are being deported. But I came to SA legally, along with many others. When people ask about their passports, they are told they are told can not be seen. They call you illegal migrants and deport you, especially Zimbabweans, Malawians, and Mozambiqueans.

Now people are afraid to go and renew their asylums in Marabasterd as is now a catching point by Home Affairs.

Dear Editor

When asylum seekers renew their permit they have to go where they were issued asylum the very first time. I think it's ridiculous. Why are they not allowed to go to the nearest Home Affairs office and extend their permit from there? i saw lots of foreigner try to do that but Cape Town refugee centre officials get angry very quickly at them and throw their papers to the ground. They treat them worse than an animal. They are getting a salary.

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