10 April 2017
Every day, dozens of asylum seekers queue outside the regional Home Affairs office at Customs House in Cape Town to get their temporary permits renewed. Most of them are unsuccessful.
The Home Affairs branch only services applications for asylum status. The site is marked by high fencing topped with barbed wire, forcing applicants to queue just off the premises under a lifted section of the N2. There are no restrooms. Vendors have set up shop selling warm drinks and food to applicants who will wait all day.
When GroundUp visited the site last Thursday, dozens of people were queuing.
“You stand in a queue from five o’clock and after standing in a queue they open around eight,” Pierre*, a 37-year-old Congolese refugee, told GroundUp. He had visited Home Affairs twice in the past week with no success. “After opening at eight o’clock they take papers, they don’t care who came first or who came last and then they go inside.”
Refugees say Home Affairs personnel take the temporary permits of everyone in the queue but then call only five to ten applicants into Customs House over the course of the whole day. The overwhelming majority must wait outside the building until the late afternoon when the department’s workers re-emerge to return their documents with no decision, often citing “missing files.”
Those who leave without new permits are not given any document to show that they applied. Yet without the extension of their permits, asylum seekers are technically in South Africa illegally and risk deportation.
All the refugees GroundUp spoke to on Thursday had renewed their permits at the Customs House facility in Cape Town in the past and did not understand the delays.
“They are looking for our files from morning to evening, but everything is in the system,” said Barbara*, a 32-year-old Zimbabwean refugee. “Why do they still want a file? Even when they get the file, when they want to renew your paper they will just take your old paper and say, ‘put your finger here.’ Once I put my finger down everything will show, all my information is in the system.“
“I am illegal,” said Michel*, a 39-year-old Congolese refugee who had been returning to the Customs House facility for over a month. “If I get caught by police I am going to get locked up, and if I get locked up I am going to present my document and they are going to say, ‘well, it’s been expired for the last five weeks.’”
Refugees may also lose their rights to education, healthcare and employment once their papers expire. Their bank accounts may be frozen.
“When you go to the clinic, they ask you where your papers are and they check the date and see it is expired,” said Ahmed*, a 29-year-old Somali refugee who has been in South Africa for six years. “They can’t help you because you don’t have proper papers.”
Marie*, a 33-year-old Congolese refugee whose papers had been expired for nearly five weeks, said this was affecting the care of her four-year-old, diabetic son. She had been forced to take out two loans to pay rent and buy sugar-free food and insulin for her son.
“All we ask is for our papers to be renewed so that we can go look for a job,” she said.
Marie said Home Affairs representatives had returned her papers with no updates again at the end of the day on Thursday. Without explanation, they told her to return on 11 April to try again.
She likened the bureaucratic process at Home Affairs to her former home in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “It’s like I’m just in the same situation.”
“If there was peace and stability back home, there would be no point in us being here,” said Michel. “I fled from persecution, but some days I feel like I would be better back home.”
Thabo Mokgola, a Home Affairs spokesperson, denied that rate of processing was as slow as claimed. He said that the number of asylum seekers made it impossible for them all to be accommodated in the building at the same time. He also said issues regarding the filing of asylum seekers’ information had been “noted” and that measures were “in place to resolve the issue in due course”. He invited applicants “experiencing challenges” to “escalate the matter” with Home Affairs staff.
*Not their real names
Comment by Home Affairs was added after publication.