Press release: Home Affairs ordered to reopen refugee office in Port Elizabeth

In a scathing judgment, the Supreme Court of Appeal has ordered the Department of Home Affairs to reopen the refugee reception office in Port Elizabeth and provide full services by 1 July 2015.

The SCA declared the decision to close the office unlawful and ordered that Home Affairs Director General Mkuseli Apleni deliver monthly reports on steps taken to ensure compliance. The court’s ruling stems from the lack of consultation undertaken in the decision to close the RRO and ignoring previous court orders. 

The RRO was closed in 2011 severely curtailing refugee services for the majority of the asylum seeker population due to long distances that applicants must travel to continuously renew their permits. This was exacerbated by Home Affairs’ unwillingness to allow files to be transferred to remaining RROs.

In 2012 the Somali Association of South Africa and Project for Conflict Resolution and Development, represented by Lawyers for Human Rights, obtained an order setting aside the Port Elizabeth office closure. However, Home Affairs failed to adhere. A subsequent order, following a new decision to keep the RRO closed, again declared the decision unlawful and ordered that it be reopened by October 2013 which was again ignored by Home Affairs. The department then appealed this ruling in the SCA.

Home Affairs had based part of its decision to close the office on plans to open a reception office at the Lebombo border crossing with Mozambique in line with a departmental decision to relocate all RROs to South Africa’s borders. The original date for the construction and opening of the office was earmarked for April 2012 but has been delayed for nearly four years with a new date expected in February 2016 at the earliest. In the meantime, no additional offices have been put in place to deal with the overflow of clients at the three remaining offices in Pretoria, Durban and Musina. 

The SCA was particularly critical of Apleni’s conduct in seeking to circumvent the previous two orders, saying “it is a most dangerous thing for litigants, particularly a state department and senior officials in its employ, to willfully ignore an order of court”. The justices were also critical of the way in which the Department misled Parliament by stating that no new office would be opened in Lebombo. Apleni, under oath, stated that the answer to that parliamentary question was only for that financial year and relied on unspecified parliamentary “customs” of only answering questions regarding the proceeding financial year. “That such a response is adduced by a senior official – under oath no less – beggars belief,” the judgment read.

“This is an important judgment regarding the responsibilities of government departments to act openly and transparently with the public,” said David Cote, head of LHR’s strategic litigation programme. “The department’s attempts to circumvent court orders and at the same time mislead Parliament are dangerous precedents for our constitutional democracy and the rule of law and we are encouraged that the SCA has criticised this approach.” 

The Court recognised the particularly vulnerable position in which asylum seekers find themselves when they first arrive in the country.  Newly-arrived asylum seekers often gravitate towards other community members who can provide them with shelter and food while going through the asylum process which can take several years and requires multiple visits to the refugee office. Asylum seekers are not entitled to any state assistance and are expected to find their own jobs and means of supporting themselves and their families. 

“We are very glad for the asylum seeker and refugee community in Port Elizabeth and we hope that the department will revisit the way it deals with the public when making decisions of such importance. Urban reception offices form an integral part of South Africa’s policy of local integration and therefore the closures and relocation to the borders undermines this policy,” said Cote.

Issued on behalf of:
Lawyers for Human Rights
Project for Conflict Resolution and Development