Holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Julian Assange is the world’s most famous asylum seeker. But he’s not the only one. A similar situation unfolded last week in Burundi, where a Congolese politician claimed refuge at the South African Embassy before the French took him off our hands. South Africa is the world’s favourite destination for asylum seekers, although SIMON ALLISON reports that it might not be a wholly deserved reputation.
A political headache – not, for once, of their own making – landed on the doorstep of South Africa’s diplomats last week. Literally. Roger Lumbala, a member of parliament from the Democratic Republic of Congo, turned up at the South African Embassy in Burundi last Monday, requesting asylum. Fortunately for the Department of International Relations & Cooperation, they were spared having to make a difficult decision when the French Embassy scooped him up instead.
Lumbala would have raised a number of difficult issues, as his is no straightforward case of political persecution. Any decision could have had have serious implications for the region, and especially South Africa’s relationship with the DRC and Rwanda.
Lumbala is wanted on charges of treason by the Congolese government – accusations he dismisses as politically motivated. Specifically, he’s accused of helping Rwanda to stir up a rebellion in the east of the country. Tensions between the DRC and Rwanda are at an historic low after a group of mutinous army officers left their posts earlier this year and formed a rebel movement known as M23, which has been involved in various skirmishes with government troops ever since. The DRC accuses Rwanda of arming and financing this rebellion, saying it is the latest in a series of Rwandan attempts to destabilise the region (see more on the roots of the conflict here, and on the increasing evidence of Rwanda’s involvement here.
Lumbala’s asylum application put South Africa in a lose-lose situation: if South Africa accepted his application, the country risked incurring the wrath of Joseph Kabila and his government, with whom it currently enjoys good relations. If the application was rejected, however, this might have violated South Africa’s legal obligations to protect the rights of asylum seekers (assuming that Lumbala’s story is true, which is admittedly a rather large assumption). As it unfolded, South Africa was lucky that France – always very active in Francophone Africa – wanted to take charge of the situation.
But South Africa has only itself to blame that asylum seekers continue to flock across the country’s borders and to its embassies. It is, after all, the world’s most popular destination for asylum seekers, by a factor of five. In 2011, there were a total of 219,368 asylum seekers in the country, as compared to the next most popular destination, the USA with just 40,000 (approximate figure).
Some of these include high-profile political exiles. Before returning to Haiti, deposed president Jean-Baptiste Aristide had made his home in Pretoria in a house generously provided by the South African government. Madagascar’s Marc Ravalomana, another deposed president, is still here after his hasty, enforced exit from his country in 2009 (South Africa has been trying desperately to get him home, but the new government of Andriy Rajoelina has repeatedly defied the conditions of the Dirco-led mediation). Meanwhile Rwandan general Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who fled to South Africa after getting on the wrong side of Paul Kagame. He made international headlines when he claimed to be the victim of an assassination attempt sponsored by the Rwandan government later that year.
Most asylum seekers – the ones that account for their astonishing numbers – have more mundane stories. The vast majority of them are from Zimbabwe, having fled the violence in 2009 and the deteriorating economic situation ever since. Others are simply attracted by South Africa’s stability and prosperity in a continent that remains troubled by conflict and poverty.
Many aren’t strictly asylum seekers at all. “There’s a phenomena that we call mixed migration – where people looking for a better life also follow the asylum seeker trail and use the asylum system to legitimize their stay,” said Tina Ghelli from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR). She explained the South Africa has a reputation for being generous towards refugees and asylum seekers, who are protected in the constitution and permitted to work and access social services – benefits denied in other popular destinations. In other countries, these ‘mixed migrants’ might be treated under different laws, but in South Africa are processed through asylum centres.
Of course, even the best laws and regulations in the world don’t necessarily translate into fair treatment in the real world, where an over-worked and under-resourced department of home affairs is failing to deal with the huge volume of applicants. Braam Hannekom, director of Passop, a Cape Town-based non-profit organization designed to assist refugees and asylum seekers, told the Daily Maverick that the department was failing to protect the rights of asylum seekers. For example, the Cape Town centre responsible for processing applications has refused to process any new applications, citing lack of capacity, despite a court order which orders them to do so.
These bureaucratic impediments are unlikely to stem the tide of asylum seekers into South Africa, especially given that the barriers to entering other favoured destinations such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are so high. Diplomats should expect more cases like Roger Lumbala to turn up at our embassies abroad – and they shouldn’t expect France to come to the rescue every time. DM
Photo by Reuters