Human rights group plan court action over the treatment of refugees (Business day)

Date: 01/01/2001

HUMAN rights lawyers are threatening legal action against the home affairs department for ordering border posts to turn back asylum-seekers and refugees arriving through neighbouring states.The lawyers claim the directive contravenes the Refugee Act, and that the department is preparing amendments to the law to make its actions legal. They accuse the government of putting at risk the lives of people fleeing wars in other parts of the continent.

According to one lawyer, the proposed amendments also provide for the opening of refugee camps in various parts of SA, where asylum seekers would be detained.

The department confirmed amendments are in the pipeline, but denies they are aimed at legalising its actions.

At the heart of the dispute is an undated circular issued by department director-general Billy Masetlha, ordering border authorities to end the practice of allowing asylum seekers and refugees, who travel via safe neighbouring states, to enter SA.

The bona fides of such persons should be verified at ports of entry and they should be referred back (to) where they come from. If they insist on entering the Republic, they should be detained, the circular says.

Although the circular, obtained last week by Business Day, does not identify the neighbouring states, it is understood that all of them Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland fall within the departments definition of a safe state.

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) refugee projects co-ordinator Jacob van Garderen said yesterday SA was following an exclusion policy that would inflate the refugee populations of needy African countries.

He said SAs refugee population was very small compared with other African countries.

SA has had about 61000 asylum applications since 1994, while Tanzania has accepted more than 1-million refugees and Zambia has several hundred thousand.

SAs policy meant that asylum seekers from other parts of Africa had no choice but to parachute into the country, Van Garderen said.

Immigration lawyer Chris Watters said the circular meant that if Angolans fleeing the war in their home country attempted to enter SA via Namibia, they could become the responsibility of Namibian authorities.

This was disturbing as Namibia tended to deport Angolans, especially those suspected of being Unita supporters, back to Angola. Amnesty International had voiced concern about their subsequent persecution at the hands of the Angolan authorities, Watters said.

Home affairs spokesman Hennie Meyer denied that the policy was aimed at keeping out such asylum-seekers. The directive was aimed mainly at people who had refugee status in neighbouring states, but wanted to come to SA because they did not want to live in refugee camps, Meyer said.

Van Garderen said LHR was considering legal action as the circular contravened the Refugee Act.

The act requires border authorities to issue temporary residence permits to refugees, who then have to apply for asylum within 14 days.

Meyer said while LHR was entitled to take legal action, the department believed it was acting within the law.