South Africa

Maverick Citizen: Asylum Seekers

Anger and fear as Home Affairs officials raid Mthatha churches

An illustrative image of The Operation Tswelopele on February 01, 2018 in Pretoria South Africa. Photo by Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius

As worshippers gathered in the Full Gospel Church at the Mthatha taxi rank in the Eastern Cape on Sunday 27 October they were afraid of a repetition of a Home Affairs raid the previous week.

In that raid, many members of the church were taken into custody — churchgoers were told that if they did not co-operate, officials would be back for the ‘women and children’. After initially denying the incident, Home Affairs took five days to explain the raids that shook the Congolese refugee community in Mthatha. The raids came within days of a visit by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.

It is just like xenophobia,” community leader Jacques Matambura, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said about a Sunday 20 October raid by Home Affairs officials and police on churchgoers in Mthatha. Matambura, 46, holds confirmed refugee status and has permanent residency in South Africa. He came to the Eastern Cape 17 years ago.

He said the congregation, mostly asylum seekers from the DRC, had gathered at the premises of the Full Gospel Church at the Mthatha taxi rank.

Church starts at 9.30am with worship until 10 and then preaching until 12.30pm. The preaching had just started when two police officers and five Home Affairs officials arrived at the church. They called the pastor out. He asked for time to finish his preaching.

They just stopped us in the middle of a song and started looking for everybody’s documentation,” he said.

Matambura had his papers with him, but many had left their documents at home.

The pastor was very angry. The police said we always come to them when we are scared of xenophobic violence so we had to help them now and co-operate with Home Affairs. They took eight guys from our church. They left the women and children, but said this Sunday they will come back for the women and the children.”

Officials also raided the Nigerian church next door, Matambura said. Several Nigerians were still in custody late last week.

We got the Congolese released,” Matambura said. “It was a very painful week.”

He said the Mthatha Refugee Reception office was not accepting any new asylum seekers at present.

The provincial manager of Home Affairs in the Eastern Cape, Gcinile Mabulu, said it was not their original intention to raid the churches.

We were planning on doing an inspection (of permits) at the World Focus Hair Salon,” he said. “When we arrived there, people started running all over the place. We chased them, assisted by the police. Some, we believed, ran into a church that was behind the salon. The service was underway and we waited outside because we were not familiar with this church or as to the number of doors or entrances. We asked a gentleman at the door if we could conduct a search and he went to the pastor. The pastor agreed.

The pastor announced to the church members that there are officers who would be interrupting the service for a few minutes. We just wanted to execute our mandate.

We then proceeded to conduct an inspection and ended up arresting 10 people, including the pastor, who were undocumented at the time,” Mabulu said.

An attorney at the Nelson Mandela University Refugee Rights Centre, Liesl Fourie, said raids on churches was a reason many asylum seekers fled their home countries.

Many are arrested and kept away from their families for long periods of time.”

She said new asylum seekers in the Eastern Cape can now hope for appointments only in October 2021 — and they are not issued with any paperwork to show that they are legally in the country.

In Cape Town, despite an order by the Supreme Court of Appeal to open its Cape Town Refugee Reception Office by the end of March 2018, the department has still not done so.

In an answer to a parliamentary question in September 2019, Minister of Home Affairs Dr Aaron Motsoaledi said the date for the reopening of the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office depended on the finalisation of the lease agreement. The court-ordered deadline had been missed because of “procurement requirements”. He said the department was encouraging new asylum seekers to apply at ports of entry in the northern parts of the country.

Motsoaledi said in his answer that countrywide, 516 asylum seekers had been issued with permits indicating that they were applying for asylum, but were waiting for an interview for a period of between one and three months to finalise their application. Motsoaledi said 2,503 applicants would have to wait for more than three months for an interview.

The average waiting time for current asylum seeker applications is 30 days or less for an interview. It must be noted the department can only provide accurate information on the average waiting period for cases registered on the National Immigration Information System as from 1 January 2018,” Motsoaledi said. MC

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