New PE refugee centre struggling to cope with large number of applicants

Many applicants are turned away daily because of lack of capacity

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Photo of Home Affairs office in Port Elizabeth
Many applicants at the Home Affairs office in Sydenham, Port Elizabeth are being turned away because the office simply cannot cope with the numbers. Photo: Joseph Chirume

The large number of people applying for asylum permits at the under-resourced Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office means that many are being turned away without getting the permits.

The office was reopened to new asylum seekers in October 2018. It followed years of legal action, public outcry and civil society activism after the office was closed in 2011. Home Affairs was ordered by the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2015 to reopen the facility.

The new premises are in Sydenham. Most of the people who apply for permits come from out of Port Elizabeth, and have to spend considerable money on transport.

When GroundUp visited the centre on Wednesday, hundreds of asylum seekers from Ethiopia and Burundi were jostling in long queues, hoping to be either served or to be allocated appointment times. Others were wandering about aimlessly after giving up hope of being served. The backlog for appointments is currently March 2019.

Chris Mapingure of the Zimbabwe Migrants Support Network said that hundreds of applicants visit the office every day hoping to get asylum permits. Most of them are turned away, he said, and only a fraction are processed. “We are appealing to the Department of Home Affairs to increase the number of people they assist daily. Many people are coming from far away places,” Mapingure said.

A 26-year-old man from Burundi who works in Cape Town as a gardener said Wednesday was his second trip to Port Elizabeth in two weeks. He failed on both occasions to get even an appointment date. He said he has spent about R1,500 for trips on transport and accommodation.

A Zimbabwean couple, who live in Cradock, got their appointment letters on Monday. They were glad but it took three attempts. Their appointments are for March next year.

Another Zimbabwean woman was concerned because her passport was taken by officials. They issued her with an appointment letter for February 2019. “How will I travel to Zimbabwe during the festive holidays?” she asked. [Asylum seekers may not travel to their home country. - Editor]

Department of Home Affairs spokesperson David Hlabane explained to GroundUp that the capacity at refugee reception offices across the country was planned for based on several factors, including closest points of entry into the country. But he said that the refugee reception offices in Pretoria and Musina, which have greater capacity, are receiving low volumes, while the majority of people are applying at the smallest centre which is in Port Elizabeth.

TOPICS:  Immigration

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