Opinionista David Holdcroft 23 July 2015

Refugee centres: Corruption is threatening lives

A report by Lawyers for Human Rights and the University of the Witwatersrand-based African Centre for Migration and Society, released this week, paints an ugly picture of the culture of bribery in South Africa’s refugee reception offices.

If we took the time to understand what drives anyone to leave the country of their birth – at times leaving behind loved ones such as children, spouses, parents and siblings – we would have greater empathy with the fact that, despite the challenges facing South Africans today, South Africa still remains a beacon of hope, a place where basic human rights are respected, and where people who need it can find relative safety.

As evidenced by the recent xenophobic attacks which spread from KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng, there are growing negative sentiments toward those who seek such help from South Africa. Many in our community cry “economic migrant here to steal our jobs” when they see people from other parts of Africa trying to eke out a living in South Africa.

Unfortunately this view gains some credence with the revelation that corruption has entrenched itself in the refugee status determination process, as revealed in a recent collaborative report by Lawyers for Human Rights and the University of the Witwatersrand-based African Centre for Migration and Society, released on 22 July. The report, entitled “Queue here for corruption” paints an ugly picture of the culture of bribery in refugee reception offices (RROs) – particularly in Marabastad, Pretoria – with the potential that those who really need South Africa’s help (and who will most likely make a positive contribution) are being turned away while others who have the resources to grease the right palm are entering the country.

Unhappily, the report corroborates the anecdotal evidence that the Jesuit Refugee Service has been collecting for years.

The accounts of two Somali refugees, Ali-Ismail Qamar and Mohammed Ali, serve as a stark reminder of why people seek the South African government’s protection from the countries of their birth.

“The only news you see about Somalia is Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is a new militia group, and Somalia has been in a continuous state of civil war for a very long time with the tribal and clan militia.” Ali explains. The fact is, Somalia has endured perpetual conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives since 1986. Qamar elaborates on the dire circumstances in Somalia: ““The central government of Somalia does not even control an area as large as the Johannesburg CBD in Mogadishu. If you go beyond the outskirts of this small area, it is all controlled by clan militia.”

Qamar escaped civil war in Somalia and has been in South Africa since 2002 and Ali arrived in 2009. The two are friends and business partners, having jointly owned and run a modest general dealership on Plaaitjies Street, in a Johannesburg suburb called Denver. Their shop was looted and they were forced to abandon everything, escaping with just the clothes on their backs, in the recent spate of xenophobic violence.

“The conflict started amongst tribes and is now amongst clans within those tribes.” Ali explains of the situation in Somalia. “As the militia advance, they will come in and live in your house and tell you to leave. If you don’t, they will kill you and your family,” adds Qamar. This is the Somalia they left behind; these are the circumstances from which Qamar and Ali sought protection in South Africa.

In compiling the report, author Roni Amit surveyed 928 asylum seekers and refugees who were using or had used the five existing RROs in South Africa: Marabastad (Pretoria), the Tshwane Interim Refugee Reception Office (TIRRO), Cape Town, Musina and Durban. The most startling finding was that Marabastad, the busiest RRO, had a disproportionally high incidence of corruption. Overall, 30% of those surveyed reported experiencing corruption at some phase of the asylum seeking process, Marabastad reported more than twice that, a shocking 62%!

At Marabastad, an average of 4.7 incidents of corruption were experienced by individuals going through the asylum application process. What this means is that asylum seekers at Marabastad have to bribe four to five different people throughout the asylum determination process. Asylum seekers do not only have to bribe senior officials tasked with assessing their claims and applications – those tasked with granting or denying applicants refugee status – they have to bribe every person along the way. The survey found 13% of all respondents reported border officials had solicited bribes from them as they crossed into South Africa, whereas 13% were denied access to RROs as they did not bribe someone at the initial queueing phase, hence the appropriate title of the report.

Across all of the RROs, 12% of asylum seekers had paid a bribe to have their asylum permits renewed and 20% had been asked to pay a bribe to resolve an issue they wished resolved at the RRO. According to the report, Marabastad has a higher incidence of corruption in each and every category interrogated. The corruption is so endemic that anecdotal evidence of interpreters “selling good stories and reasons for asylum” was presented.

This is exactly the news that no government needs or wants. This deeply entrenched corruption undermines the government’s otherwise commendable policy to regulate migration and refugee reception, to ensure that only migrants who can contribute most to society enter and that only those refugees who really need South Africa’s help receive it.

Rather, it adds some credence to the view that many so-called refugees are here through corrupt means rather than as a result of genuine persecution. Part of the narrative that justified the recent xenophobic attacks of January and April this year is that people flock to South Africa claiming to be refugees but are here to find work or start businesses. At forums organised to bring refugees and South African business owners together, the locals complained that they felt the government was not protecting them enough.

How then do we create the social cohesion that the government, civil society and migrant and local communities all say they want and are working so hard towards? How do we stop this true xenophobic culture in the refugee determination processes taking advantage of others’ misfortune and vulnerability in the most malicious manner? The report talks of a culture that needs to change in the refugee reception offices, not just some “bad apples”. It is here that the views of migrants as well as local communities may indeed coincide in demanding that the government change this culture once and for all to the benefit of all who live in the country.

Qamar’s words resonate as he speaks of a time when Somalia knew peace: “Growing up as a child we cried for freedom in South Africa, singing the song Asimbongana. If there was peace in Somalia and you went there as a South African, you wouldn’t have to sleep in a hotel, you would meet someone on the street and they would give you a place to sleep in their home and something to eat, because you are our brothers.”

The South African Constitution, domestic laws and international conventions on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers demand a measured and reasonable hospitality from the government, one that benefits the country as well as those who seek its help. We are duty bound to protect people seeking safety in South Africa while fleeing the repression and flagrant human rights abuses that occur elsewhere. Our government’s institutions cannot abandon this most sacred duty in exchange for extortion money. It robs people of their dignity as legitimate seekers of protection, it robs South Africans of being able to live in harmony and without suspicion of migrants, and it robs us all of a state entity performing a duty we entrusted to it with diligence and honesty. DM


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