Plea to fix SA’s asylum management system and stop victimising migrants

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The state is failing South Africans and migrants living in the country by not dealing with crime and by allowing impunity to continue around xenophobic attacks, says Amnesty International SA.

Shenilla Mohamed, Amnesty SA’s executive director, said: “Authorities need to step up and adequately respond to high crime rates and deal with xenophobic attacks on vulnerable migrants who have become a scapegoat for communities unhappy with crime.

“Police need to act against anyone perpetrating a crime, but also those who take the law into their own hands. The violation of people’s rights to safety, security, dignity and life must not be allowed to continue with impunity.”

Despite its strong legal and human rights framework on refugees and asylum seekers’ rights, Amnesty said SA’s asylum management system is failing, leaving hundreds of thousands of applicants without proper documentation and worsening xenophobia in the country.

“The current asylum management system is failing everyone. In persisting with a broken system that leaves those trying to claim asylum undocumented and in limbo, the government is causing a divide and inflaming tensions between South Africans and fellow Africans living in the country,” Mohamed said.

The latest flare-up of tensions arose in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, this week, which saw police minister Bheki Cele, Gauteng premier David Makhura and national police commissioner Gen Sehlahle Fannie Masemola visit the area.

Cele said on Wednesday that he would return to Diepsloot later this week with home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who deals with immigration issues.

On Wednesday night a man, Elvis Nyathi, was attacked and killed in an alleged vigilante mob attack by people checking migrants’ documentation.

Systemic dysfunction

According to Amnesty International’s annual report 2021/22, “The State of the World’s Human Rights”, there are more than 153,000 outstanding asylum applications in SA.

The government and the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, signed a $9.6m (R141.4m) agreement in March to clear the backlog and revamp the asylum management system by 2024.

Amnesty said in May 2021, the Western Cape High Court ruled that the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office (RRO), which had been closed in 2012, be reopened. This followed the department of home affairs’ failure to comply with a 2017 court order issued by the Supreme Court of Appeals to reopen the RRO by March 2018.

Since its closure, asylum seekers in Cape Town had to travel to Durban, Musina or Pretoria every few months (1,455km, 1,633km and 1,923km, respectively) to renew their permits.

Amnesty SA released a report in 2019 titled “Living in Limbo: Rights of Asylum Seekers Denied”, which found among other things that poor decision-making, including mistakes of fact and lack of sound reasoning, had resulted in a 96% rejection rate of asylum applications and a huge backlog of appeals and reviews — about 190,000.

The organisation said this kept some asylum seekers in the asylum system without a final decision of their case for as long as 19 years. There have been sporadic xenophobic attacks throughout last year and this year. 

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