[PRESS STATEMENT] On World Refugee Day, LHR calls unity and solidarity in unprecedented times

Date: 20/06/2020

As we commemorate world refugee day it is important to uphold the fundamental rights of foreign nationals as equal to those of citizens. The South African legal framework, including the Refugees Act, the Constitution and the Refugee Conventions and Protocols uphold this sentiment.  It must be maintained, not at the expense, but for the benefit of all residents of South Africa.

Since the start of the national lockdown on 28 March 2020, the Minister of Home Affairs limited services to birth registrations, uplifting death certificates and issuing replacement and new identity documents for citizens.

The refugee reception offices remained closed since 25 March 2020. The department of Home Affairs (DHA) announced that any asylum seeker or refugee whose document expired from 16 March 2020 to the end of lockdown period will not be penalised or arrested, provided that they legalise their permits within 30 calendar days of lockdown being lifted. The announcement was silent on the newcomers who were not issued with asylum permits when they applied for asylum post the announcement of the lockdown. On 11 June 2020, the Minister of home Affairs published regulation 19 stating that asylum seeker visas and refugee permits will be deemed to be renewed until 31 July 2020.

However, the regulation does not resolve the daily struggles faced by refugees who, due to the closing of DHA services, are not documented. These struggles include limited access to healthcare, lack of social relief, exclusion from or delayed employment and unemployment insurance payments, and the threat of arbitrary arrest and detention.

The latest challenge highlighted by the lock down relates specifically to evictions and the threat of homelessness.

Our offices in Johannesburg and Pretoria have observed a concerning trend of asylum seekers and refugees who are routinely denied access to chronic medical treatment either due to expired documents or lack of funds.

Many of the refugees contact the legal support hotline and various office emergency numbers, stating that hospitals turn them away or refuse to dispense medication to them although they are returning patients.  Pregnant women are advised to pay in advance of their caesarean delivery dates , and even children may not receive treatment if payment is not made prior to the treatment. LHR is in the process of contacting the hospitals to find clarity and further engage on this issue.

The lockdown also saw the closure of the DHA mainstream services including birth registration.

On 1 May 2020 DHA resumed birth registrations at level 4 of the lockdown, however this excludes asylum seekers and undocumented persons from registering the birth of their children. The reason provided by DHA that, due to the closure of the Refugee Reception Offices (RRO’S) in South Africa, there is no way to verify the authenticity of the asylum seekers permits or status in the country.

Social assistance is denied to most foreign nationals. The social relief of distress grant is limited to South African citizens, permanent residents, and recognised refugees. We welcome the victory won by our sister organisation Scalabrini who challenged the exclusion of Asylum seekers from qualifying for the Social Relief of distress grant.  In our view the devastating impact of the pandemic on food security and socio-economic vulnerability extends to all persons regardless of documentation or citizenship.

The public interest legal support hotline has been contacted by hundreds of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers seeking advice on securing their accommodation and LHR continues to advise callers daily. Landlords demand payment of rent at all levels of the lockdown. Increasingly the legal advice emphasises the critical role that the South African Police Services must take in preventing illegal evictions. The sad reality is that many police officers tend to blame foreign nationals for failing to pay rent, and occasionally we receive reports of discriminatory undertones in the interventions. Callers inform us that they fear approaching the police in remote and rural areas as the police are biased against foreigners.

The government has announced that during level 3 lockdown, landlords can make applications at court to evict tenants, however the sheriff will not execute an eviction order until the end of lock 3. Illegal evictions irrespective of these directives, have become the norm and the people who are evicted further expose themselves and their families to a higher risk of COVID19 as they relocate to crowded private homes or increasingly packed homeless shelters.

Migrant children who are separated from their families are unable to reunite with them due to the closure of the borders.

The response from law enforcement has seen many foreign nationals arrested and detained arbitrarily. When the foreign nationals appear in court the matter is withdrawn or struck from the roll due to nonappearance by the state.  Refugees who own spaza shops are subjected to random inspections and closure of their shops, despite being legally compliant, and some have lost their lives through these inspections. Some shop owners had their stock unlawfully confiscated by the police and they are unable to continue trading.

We wish to amplify the call from the global human rights community for unity and solidarity in such an unprecedented and challenging season.

For queries:

Sharon Ekambaram

Manager: Refguee & Migrant Rights Programme



Thank you for joining
Thank you for joining the LHR Newsletter, we will be in touch soon