Opinionista Nathan Geffen 18 February 2014

Three suggestions to improve the lives of thousands of people in South Africa

It has become taboo in much of the world to discriminate against people because of their religion, skin colour or sex. Despite recent setbacks the same goes for sexual orientation. Gradually we are realising that these are arbitrary distinctions, at least when it comes to law and policy. Yet one type of discrimination remains rife and accepted across the planet, albeit almost as arbitrary as racism. It is discrimination based on location of birth..

Immigrants to South Africa have a torrid time. About 60,000 to 80,000 people apply for asylum in South Africa every year. They are subjected to a system that is Kafkaesque.

Take the example of Ibrahim Abdulkhadir. He is a refugee from Somalia. He came to Cape Town and tried to apply for asylum, as is his right in South African law. But every time he went to the Home Affairs office, he was chased away by the security guards, who told him, arguably in contravention of a court order, that the Cape Town office does not process new asylum seekers. So he travelled, at his own expense, to the Home Affairs office in Pretoria. He was arrested along the way, in Bloemfontein, and detained for nearly a month because he didn’t have asylum papers. The experience cost Abdulkhadir more than R12,000 including lawyers’ fees.

The Director-General of Home Affairs, Mkuseli Apleni, has in the last couple of weeks said that his department’s centre for processing refugees in Cape Town will not take any new asylum seekers. This means that if you are not currently dealt with by that office, it’s almost impossible to live as an asylum seeker in Cape Town.

As explained recently, this is the process asylum seekers have to go through:

When refugees arrive in South Africa they have to apply for asylum at a refugee centre. In most cases they will receive a Section 22 permit. This permit means that a refugee’s application for asylum is being considered. In practice it takes years –sometimes more than a decade– for most applications to be considered. Nevertheless, the Section 22 permit has to be renewed every few months. It is hard to extend the permit anywhere other than where a person originally applied for it.

The implication of Apleni’s decision is that it is almost impossible for new refugees who wish to be lawful to live in Cape Town. To do so they would have to apply for the Section 22 permit up north and likely have to travel there every few months, which is time-consuming, uncertain and unaffordable.

Even for those asylum seekers who will continue to be processed in Cape Town, the conditions of the temporary refugee centre on the foreshore are filthy. Applicants have to wait in long queues from early in the morning. If they are too far back in the queue they will often not be seen and then have to come back another day.

Human rights groups have compared Home Affairs’ policies to the Group Areas Act under apartheid.

Money and time is wasted policing asylum seekers, even if they’re working and minding their own business. Few people have heard of Vanwyksdorp. It’s a tiny village in rural Western Cape. You can only get there on a gravel road. It is a four hour journey to Cape Town by bus from Riversdale or Ladismith, the closest towns to Vanwyksdorp. Yet Home Affairs, not known for fostering an exuberant work ethic, dispatched immigration officials to a farm near the village and had seven Zimbabweans labourers arrested because their asylum documents had expired.

This system, that robs people of their dignity, is described in No Way In, a booklet by the African Centre for Migration and Society.

But it is not only asylum seekers who suffer indignities. Xenophobia from ordinary South Africans and the police makes life difficult and unsafe for many immigrants. The Khayelitsha inquiry into policing heard testimony about how when Somali shopkeepers report crimes committed by gangs against them, the police, instead of investigating the crimes, search the Somali shops and try to find ways to arrest them, usually because they have unlicensed firearms. I don’t support keeping unlicensed firearms, but members of the Somali community are regularly beaten up and murdered. So it is understandable that they take measures to protect themselves, especially since they get little protection from the cops.

It is interesting that despite the ideological ascendancy of free trade, the one critical component of it that is often ignored is freedom for people to offer their labour across borders. South Africa truly needs immigrants. We have a massive skills shortage, several hundred thousand jobs according to one source. We do little to encourage immigrants to fill these jobs. For example, the Health Professions Council is so dysfunctional, it can take years for a foreign doctor to get to a point where he or she can practice legally.

South Africa is far from unique in its awful treatment of immigrants. State initiated xenophobia is a problem all over, from strident anti-immigration sentiment in the UK against Eastern Europeans to naked racism against African immigrants in Israel. In the UAE migrant workers make up most of the population, yet they have few rights; it’s a country that desperately needs a revolution led by immigrants.

Here are three things that we can do in South Africa to improve the lives of many thousands of immigrants.

First, Home Affairs in Cape Town should begin processing new asylum applications again. This will encourage refugees to make their homes here, and add to the cultural diversity and economy of the city. More importantly, it will make life easier for many immigrants.

Second, the Section 22 permit period should be changed to at least three, or even five, years. I have met asylum seekers who have been renewing their permits every few months for over a decade; their asylum applications have still not been considered. The backlog is beyond the capacity of Home Affairs to manage. By extending the period of the permit, Home Affairs will reduce the queues at its refugee reception centres and free up resources to process asylum requests. This will save asylum seekers the considerable expense and indignity of standing in queues every few months at these awful centres.

Third, immigrants should be pro-actively hired into the police force with the purpose of servicing immigrant communities. This will increase the chance that immigrant communities will get decent care from SAPS.

All these can be implemented with a modicum of political will. Nevertheless, given that immigrants have almost no political power, they will have to organise and campaign vigorously even for these modest measures. DM

Geffen is the editor of GroundUp.

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