U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - South Africa

South Africa hosted some 22,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2001, including about 5,000 from Somalia, nearly 5,000 from Congo-Brazzaville, some 4,000 from Angola, and about 8,000 from various other countries.

Asylum Numbers

Unlike most African countries, South Africa conducts individual interviews with virtually all asylum applicants to determine their refugee status. Recognized refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa live in urban areas rather than designated camps.

The government reported at the end of 2001 that it had granted refugee status to about 19,000 asylum seekers since 1994, and that about 3,000 asylum applications were still awaiting a final decision by authorities.

During 2001, officials approved 4,000 asylum applications – many of which had been submitted years earlier – and received nearly 4,000 new applications. New asylum applicants primarily originated from Congo-Kinshasa, Angola, and Somalia. The 3,000 applicants awaiting a final decision as the year ended were primarily from Angola, Somalia, Congo-Kinshasa, Burundi, Senegal, and Nigeria.

South Africa has received 66,000 asylum applications during the past seven years, according to a new compilation by the South African government. About 19,000 have been approved and some 37,000 rejected – an acceptance rate of about one-third.

Asylum Determination Process

The Refugees Act, passed by the South African legislature in 1998, took effect in 2000. The Refugees Act uses both the 1951 Refugee Convention and standards set by the 1969 Organization for African Unity to judge asylum claims.

The new law promised to shorten the procedure for adjudicating asylum applications and provided special identity cards to asylum seekers who were granted official refugee status. The law placed restrictions on asylum seekers by prohibiting their employment and schooling while their cases are pending.

The government's Department of Home Affairs (DHA) launched a special program in 2000 to clear a backlog of more than 20,000 asylum applications that had accumulated because of the government's previously cumbersome asylum process. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Lawyers for Human Rights, a South African organization, worked with DHA to process the backlog, a task that continued into 2001.

"There are still asylum seekers who have been waiting for more than a year for a determination of their status," noted a March report by the Human Rights Committee of South Africa.

The accelerated determination process reviewed some 25,000 asylum cases during the period from late 2000 to mid-2001 and issued 11,000 decisions, granting asylum in two-thirds of the cases decided. However, adjudicators found that one-quarter of all applications were "of no substance" and merited no formal decision, effectively denying the application.

Applicants denied asylum had recourse to appeal. The government's appeals board added new members to bolster its capacity, but backlogs at the appeal level remained problematic, UNHCR reported.

Protection and Assistance

Anti-foreigner attitudes remained strong in South African society. Various sources estimated that between 1 million and 8 million foreign nationals lived in South Africa in addition to the country's 43 million citizens. Refugees and asylum seekers continued to suffer discrimination, harassment, and worse during 2001.

"Many refugees expressed ... the fear that locals were going to kill them," a report by the Human Rights Committee of South Africa observed. A statement issued in June by the Southern Africa Catholic Bishop's Conference lamented that "some [refugees] have had acid poured on their faces and bodies, [and] others have been thrown out of moving trains."

Human rights workers complained that authorities at times turned away asylum seekers at borders and airports. Police conducting sweeps for undocumented immigrants in urban areas sometimes detained asylum seekers. UNHCR in recent years has urged the government to take precautions to protect the rights of asylum seekers during deportation proceedings.

Refugees and asylum seekers regularly reported that employers discriminated against them and that hospitals sometimes denied them medical care. The government's main refugee agency, DHA, often treated refugees and asylum seekers with disrespect, according to the Human Rights Committee for South Africa.

UNHCR and the South African Human Rights Commission continued to mount a "Roll Back Xenophobia" campaign to educate South Africans about refugees and other foreigners. The campaign sponsored community meetings and offered workshops on refugees' rights for local journalists and health-care workers.

The government began to issue special identity cards to refugees in May, as required by the country's new refugee statute. "These documents are expected to make a very important difference in the lives of refugees by enabling them to engage in everyday transactions," UNHCR reported. Distribution of the cards was slow, however.

Most refugees in Africa supported themselves without outside assistance. UNHCR provided vocational training, language classes, and scholarships for small numbers of refugees. The poorest refugees received stipends to help pay for food, transportation, and education.

International Resettlement

About 80 refugees in South Africa permanently resettled abroad during the first half of the year, as part of an organized program. Applicants for international resettlement stormed a UN building in late 2000 to protest program procedures, an incident that left UNHCR staff shaken. UNHCR expressed concern that refugees' discontent with selection criteria and the pace of the resettlement program posed a security risk to the agency's staff.

"Threats [by refugee resettlement applicants] have become increasingly confrontational, much bolder, and more menacing," UNHCR reported in July. The agency expressed alarm at "an increasing trend of unfounded applications" for resettlement. Frustrations and dangers linked to resettlement processing in South Africa "pose serious challenges," UNHCR warned.


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