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Covid-19 moves refugees and asylum seekers to the bottom of priorities

Covid-19 moves refugees and asylum seekers to the bottom of priorities
Asylum-seekers in South Africa awaiting the outcome of their applications have limited rights to healthcare, education, job security and constantly face harassment, arrest, detention and deportation, says Jessica Lawrence of Lawyers for Human Rights. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

In many countries migrants are targets of hate and blame, systematically discriminated against in the response to Covid-19. There is a growing belief that it is time to build a new culture of integration and inclusiveness from the bottom up; to show who xenophobia serves; and what the root causes of joblessness, inequality and deprivation really are. To assist with this, Maverick Citizen is co-hosting, with Lawyers for Human Rights, Liliesleaf Farm and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a series of webinars on migration. This is a report on the second webinar.

Tighter restrictions arising from the Refugee Amendment Act coupled with pressure from the Covid-19 crisis has seen asylum-seekers and refugees slip further down the priority list. 

Asylum-seeker applications in South Africa have dropped off in the past few years. The numbers tell a story not necessarily of fewer people seeking refuge here, but of more red tape, more hostility and the tightening noose of regressive legislation.

Application processing backlogs are mounting, and there’s deepening corruption and widening loopholes for exploitation. The Refugee Amendment Act is also proving to be deliberately clunky and, most worrying, it’s a divergence from the Constitution, human rights lawyers are warning.

Speaking in a webinar series “Growing Solidarity in a Time of Covid-19” on Friday 24 July, attorney Jessica Lawrence, from Lawyers for Human Rights, outlined a damning picture of a “shrinking asylum-seeker space”. 

She said: “The asylum application system in South Africa is incredibly strained and is failing to effectively and efficiently fulfil its function.” 

She added that the Covid-19 crisis has increased pressure on an already buckling Home Affairs department, further limiting the rights and protection of asylum-seekers.

While Home Affairs announced in mid-July a blanket extension of validity of asylum-seeker permits and visas till the end of October, this doesn’t address the numerous other hurdles that have plagued Home Affairs for years. Lawrence said long queues, closed or under-functioning refugee reception offices, incompetent staff and staff shortages mean the extension will have little actual effect as permit and visa renewals simply won’t be processed on time.

Lawrence said the auditor-general’s review of Home Affairs’ performance in February this year showed there are currently 40,326 asylum-seeker applications before the Standing Committee on Refugee Affairs and 147,794 cases before the Refugee Appeals Authority.  

“At the current capacity, and even with no new cases taken on, it would take a year for the cases to be cleared at the Standing Committee and 68 years at the Refugee Appeals Authority,” she said.  

Looking at 2017 Home Affairs figures, Lawrence said in that year 27,980 applications were logged. However, a massive 25,713 applications were rejected by the refugee and status determination officers, or RSDOs, who handled the cases.

She said: “These rejections push people into the appeals and review process, leaving them in legal limbo for years and we’ve seen that the quality of RSDO decision-making is incredibly poor. Decisions are often sent back to RSDOs because of a lack of information and misapplication of the law, and this adds to the high level of backlogs.”

Lawrence said asylum-seeker application numbers are down from a peak of 223,000 in 2009, to under 30,000 in the past few years. However, people who still choose to go through the process have waited, in some cases, 15 years for an outcome to their application. Left in this limbo, asylum-seekers have limited rights to healthcare, education, job security and constantly face harassment, arrest, detention and deportation.

Lawrence said new obstacles are emerging with the Refugees Amendment Act having come into effect on 1 January this year.

“The procedural, administrative and logistical hurdles will complicate asylum-seekers’ access to services and compound an already constrained and broken system.” 

Under the new act, there are expanded grounds for exclusion for applications. These include applications being revoked and declared abandoned after only 30 days; requirements to lodge an application within five days of entry into South Africa; the removal of automatic rights to work; and study permanent residency to depend on 10 years continuous residence, up from a five-year period.

 “South Africa has historically had a strong rights-based legislation for refugees and asylum-seekers, but there’s clear evidence that there is now a less generous policy direction that doesn’t appear to be in line with our Constitution,” she added.

Lawrence told Maverick Citizen: “Many asylum-seekers and refugees speak about the hardships of being in South Africa, including reasons related to xenophobia. We are seeing an increasing number of refugees and asylum-seekers opting to leave South Africa due to increased hostility towards foreign nationals, difficulty in accessing the asylum system and documentation. Many people fear for their lives in South Africa.”

Also speaking on the panel, Karabo Ozah, director at the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, warned of a “slippery regression taking place on so many levels and chipping away of rights-based laws and policies”. 

She added that the government is shifting gears in policy, “trying to have migration control but not doing this in a correct way”.

Ozah said migrant children count among the most vulnerable in society. She pointed to troubling moves by Home Affairs to issue “notices of birth” rather than birth certificates to children born to migrant women as well as prohibitions on adopting children if a child’s status as South African cannot be determined.

Migrant children without documentation continue to be excluded from healthcare, schooling, grants and other basic social services.

“We find that most children who come to South Africa may be following family members, or may be looking for their parents. Others are in need of free education, or opportunities to find jobs to send money home. Many of these children become susceptible to be exploited as child labour or are dragged into other illegal activities,” she said.

Ozah said the Covid-19 crisis had shifted the attention on migrants and asylum-seekers even lower down the country’s priority list. 

She added: “I don’t believe there will be an improvement from government even after Covid. It means we will have to push hard, to go all out and to litigate if we have to.”

Leonard Zulu, the regional representative from the office of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, said during the webinar: “South Africa had a model law that is now severely constrained.”

He said the UN refugee agency had formally expressed its concerns about the damage this will cause to social cohesion and is waiting for the Covid-19 crisis to pass to revive engagements with South African government officials. 

He said: “We want to keep the asylum space open and we have invited the South African government to have a conversation about how we can mitigate the adverse impact of the new law and how we can carry out remedial action. We hope this can start soon.” DM/MC

The “Building Solidarity in a Time of Covid-19” webinar series continues this week. For more information email [email protected]

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