Protection Denied: Asylum in the New South Africa

This year South Africa celebrates its Constitution’s tenth anniversary. Under its guidance, the country has made remarkable advances in overcoming past injustices and creating a country that respects the rights of all its residents. But judging by how well it protects the most vulnerable members of our society—including refugees and asylum seekers—South Africa still has a long way to go. Indeed, rather than finding safety from violence and persecution, the country’s refugees and asylum seekers face administrative delays, extortion, and the constant threat of deportation. 

In commemoration of World Refugee Day on 20 June, the National Consortium of Refugee Affairs, in collaboration with Lawyers for Human Rights and Wits Forced Migration Studies Programme, is issuing a report outlining these hazards and the government’s efforts to address them. It begins by congratulating South Africa for its progressive refugee and asylum legislation dedicated to promoting a just society for all residents. Rather than warehousing refugees in isolated camps or detention facilities, South Africa encourages refugees to live in its cities where they can work and contribute. The report also reminds us that while there are increased numbers of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa, the numbers are small—less than 150 000—compared to the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in much poorer countries to the north. Despite these modest numbers, the report finds that all is not right. Throughout the country, a shortage of human and institutional capacity, ignorance, discrimination, corruption, and abuse prevent people from accessing the protections to which they are legally entitled.


By now these stories are all too familiar: People sleeping outside offices just to file an application; security guards and translators demanding money simply to walk through the door; long delays and lost files; police abuse; and denial of key social services—including life saving medical care. In the words of a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who has been in South Africa for more than six months, “I still have not managed to get an asylum seekers permit. I am scared of queuing at Home Affairs. I do not see the use and I think I will face further violence there.” Until he gets his documents—and even after he does—he and others risk unjustified detention and even deportation. When the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) deports refugees or asylum seekers (or those who have tried to seek asylum), it violates both South African and international law, to say nothing of its ethical commitments or the human dignity of those returned to violence and persecution. 


These are not new problems. To its credit, the DHA has launched a turnaround strategy to address many of the technical difficulties in the asylum system. Some Local Governments have also begun reaching out to the refugees in their cities. But such responses are not enough. Even as the DHA reviews outstanding asylum claims, thousands of people fleeing violence and oppression in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and other countries remain without the documentation needed to access housing, employment, banking, employment, and social services.

This not only hurts refugees, but those who depend on them and the communities in which they live.

If South Africa is to fulfil its ethical and legal obligations to protect refugees—and capitalise on the skills many of them bring to the country—the (DHA) must take a leading role in improving its own practices. It should also coordinate other government departments at the national, provincial, and local levels. But the DHA can not do this alone. Parliament should provide adequate resources to the DHA and exercise oversight to ensure it does not fail in its mandate. However, this will not happen without vigilance from South African civil society: from the NCRA and all organizations and individuals concerned with human rights and the dignity of our society’s most vulnerable people. Refugees and asylum seekers arrive in South Africa to escape human rights violations. Let us hope that the second decade of South Africa’s Constitution will do more to ensure that their rights are protected here.

Loren B. Landau is Director of Wits University’s Forced Migration Studies Programme and Executive Committee Chair for the National Consortium of Refugee Affairs. The NCRA will launch its, ‘State of South African Refugee Protection’ Report on 19 June on the Wits University Campus. For more information, contact migration [at] migration [dot] wits [dot] ac [dot] za or joycet [at] ncra [dot] org [dot] za.