Court battle over Cape Town asylum seekers

Scalabrini Centre wants Home Affairs Cape Town office to accept new applications by asylum seekers

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Photo of Cape High Court sign
Photo: Masixole Feni

On Thursday, the Department of Home Affairs was back in the Western Cape High Court over the closure of the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office (RRO).

The matter has been disputed in the courts since June 2012, when Home Affairs first closed the office for new asylum applicants.

Cape Town is not the only city where refugee reception offices were closed. Until 2011, there were six centres in the country: Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Musina. Since then, the offices in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town have been closed. Asylum seekers who came to Cape Town after June 2012 have had to go to Durban, Musina or Pretoria to register, between 1,500 and 1,900km from Cape Town.

“I can’t think of any government services for South Africans that would require someone living in Cape Town to go to Pretoria,” says Steven Budlender, counsel for the applicants, which included Scalabrini Centre, the Somali Association of South Africa and several asylum seekers.

“It is unthinkable that someone applying for social grants here or an 18-year-old from Khayelitsha who wanted to register to vote would be told to go to Pretoria. What is it about refugee reception services that makes this acceptable?”

Corey Johnson, an advocacy officer at Scalabrini, says he thinks Home Affairs is trying to deter asylum seekers. “The closures are due to DHA’s focus on reducing the number of asylum applications instead of directing resources into how to improve their ability to receive them,” he said. “The general perception of asylum seekers by the department is that they are not genuine and are abusing the asylum system.”

Home Affairs argues that “prior to having entered the country and applying for asylum, those seeking refugee status, will not have established themselves in any particular city and, as such, they have no right or entitlement to apply for asylum in any particular city.”

In March 2015, the Supreme Court of Appeals ordered Home Affairs to reopen the Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Centre. Home Affairs has until 1 July to comply.

In the Port Elizabeth judgment, the court noted: “The asylum application process is invariably a protracted one. Timely access to an RRO is thus critical not just for asylum seekers to legalise their stay in this country, but also for the effective protection of their rights.”

Applications for asylum require more than one visit. Once their application has been lodged, asylum seekers must follow through at the same office, returning for a refugee-status determination interview, renewal of their asylum-seeker permit, the decision on their status and for any appeals processes.

Johnson says the process can take a couple of years. “We’ve seen some cases of people waiting 10 to 15 years.”

The Cape Town office is still functioning but only with existing applications from before June 2012. Last week, however, the High Court ordered it to renew the permits of asylum applicants living in the Western Cape even if they had originally applied at another office.

Closure “irrational and unlawful”

In closing the office, the Director General provided reasons for the closure. These included: the difficulty of maintaining a refugee reception office in a metro area because of recurring litigation over nuisance and zoning violations; the main Customs House office was not suitable and another suitable location could not be found; the majority of the applications lodged at the Cape Town office were eventually rejected; for many of the applicants, Cape Town was not their point of entry.

But Counsel for the applicants argued that in the first four months of 2012, before the office was closed, it was the second busiest in the country.

The respondents, however, argued that the number of applicants has reduced over the years from 222,300 in 2009 to 70,000 in 2013.

Decision unconstitutional

The closure of the office forced asylum seekers to take off three to four days from work and fund expensive travel that also put them at risk of detention and deportation every time they had to visit an office.

The applicants included the example of Abdikadir Jele, a Somali asylum seeker who visited the Cape Town RRO four times between the end of 2011 and June 2012 to register, but was told to come back another day. He returned after June 2012 and was told he could no longer apply at that office.

Jele has not registered because he does not have the means to travel to Durban, Pretoria or Musina, let alone return there for further proceedings. He said he barely makes enough to survive and depends on the community in Cape Town.

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