Last Updated: Thursday, 18 January 2018, 16:17 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - South Africa

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 20 June 2001
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - South Africa , 20 June 2001, available at: [accessed 18 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

South Africa hosted some 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers from various countries at the end of 2000.

Asylum Procedure

South Africa's cumbersome asylum process has granted official refugee status to 15,000 persons since 1994, primarily from Angola, Congo-Kinshasa, Burundi, and Somalia, as well as from various other countries. An additional 15,000 asylum applications awaited determination of their status at the end of 2000.

South African authorities rendered decisions on some 5,300 asylum applications during the year. Only about 550 were granted refugee status. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that many applicants, mostly males aged 15 to 35, were economic migrants.

A Refugee Act passed by the legislature in 1998 took effect in mid-2000. The new law was intended to revise and shorten the procedure for adjudicating asylum applications, and to enable recognized refugees to receive identity cards. However, the law also placed restrictions on asylum seekers by prohibiting their employment and schooling until their asylum application is approved.

While UNHCR and human rights workers in South Africa welcomed parts of the new law, local refugee advocates criticized its new restrictions as "unfair" and "unreasonable." They called on UNHCR and the government to provide greater material support to asylum seekers legally barred from supporting themselves. Some asylum seekers have waited as long as six years for a final review of their asylum application and have increasingly turned to UNHCR for humanitarian aid as they wait, "putting additional demands on the limited resources of UNHCR," the agency reported.

Despite the promise of streamlined procedures under the new refugee law, the country's asylum adjudication process remained mired in problems. No single government agency was responsible for coordinating refugee affairs, according to UNHCR. UNHCR reported widespread abuse and bureaucratic inefficiency. Credible reports in recent years have charged that corruption among South African asylum officials often have determined the pace and outcome of decisions on individual asylum claims.

More than 100 asylum seekers protested outside government offices in November against the slow pace of asylum decisions and complained that police regularly detained asylum seekers because they lacked proper documentation while their asylum applications were pending. A crackdown against undocumented foreigners in early 2000 resulted in the detention of many asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch reported.

UNHCR publicly protested the detention of asylum seekers during the government's action against undocumented migrants. "Their pleas and attempts at showing police officers permits attesting to their legal status in the country fell on deaf ears," UNHCR stated.

In June, authorities routinely deported 1,600 undocumented Zimbabweans who had recently arrived in South Africa. Local press reports raised concerns that some of the deportees might have been genuine asylum seekers attempting to flee mounting turmoil in Zimbabwe. Although the authorities insisted that none of the deportees were asylum seekers, officials agreed to suspend mass deportations temporarily. UNHCR urged the government to take additional precautions to protect the rights of asylum seekers in the event of a mass influx from Zimbabwe. A mass influx did not occur, however.

"The presence of an increasing number of asylum seekers and refugees has ... led to worrying levels of public resentment and xenophobia," UNHCR stated. A "Roll Back Xenophobia" campaign, sponsored by the South African Human Rights Commission and UNHCR, broadcast radio programs and displayed public posters and photo exhibits to educate South Africans about the needs of refugees and other foreigners.

UNHCR provided financial support to produce refugee identity cards, hire interpreters for asylum interviews, and other steps to reduce the backlog of asylum cases. The agency provided education grants to 1,000 refugee students and offered a limited amount of financial aid for lodging and medical care for the neediest refugees and asylum seekers.

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