U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - South Africa

South Africa hosted some 65,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2002, including about 25,000 recognized refugees and 40,000 asylum seekers whose asylum applications were still under governmental review at year's end.

The 25,000 recognized refugees in South Africa included nearly 8,000 from Congo-Kinshasa, nearly 7,000 from Somalia, about 5,000 from Angola, nearly 2,000 from Burundi, some 1,000 from Rwanda, and about 2,000 from various other countries. Government records did not indicate the nationalities of nearly 40,000 asylum seekers whose applications for refugee status were pending.

Asylum Numbers

More than 80 percent of the 25,000 recognized refugees in South Africa were adult males – an unusually large percentage on a continent where adult males usually number far fewer than half of most refugee populations. Somali refugees living in South Africa included nearly 90 percent adult males, Angolan and Burundian refugee populations were both about 85 percent adult males, and Congolese and Rwandan refugees were about 70 percent adult males.

Government officials granted approval to some 2,000 asylum applicants during the year and rejected nearly 500. Half of all newly approved asylum applicants were from Congo-Kinshasa. Asylum seekers filed about 13,000 new asylum applications during 2002, stretching an asylum adjudication system already struggling to cope with backlogged cases.

Government authorities have received 110,000 asylum applications since 1994. Asylum seekers from just five countries – Congo-Kinshasa, Angola, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan – have filed half of all asylum applications during that time. Although government statistics were incomplete, it appears that authorities have approved about 35 percent of all asylum applications deemed to be non-frivolous.

Asylum Determination Process

Unlike most African countries, South Africa conducts individual interviews with virtually all asylum applicants to determine their refugee status. 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 in 1969 by the Organization for African Unity to judge asylum claims.

The government's Refugee Section within the Department of Home Affairs handles most refugee matters. Most asylum seekers apply for refugee status at reception centers in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, and Port Elizabeth. The law stipulates that recognized refugees must renew their applications every two years.

Backlogs in the government's refugee status determination process have plagued the country's asylum system for many years. At least one reception office, in Johannesburg, managed to adjudicate fewer than 10 percent of pending applications because of financial constraints and staffing problems. The government's Refugee Appeal Board expanded from three to five members in an effort to speed its review of previously rejected asylum cases.

As in previous years, fraud and corruption continued to challenge the integrity of the asylum process. The fact that a large percentage of asylum seekers were adult males raised widespread suspicions that many were economic migrants submitting fraudulent asylum claims. Legitimate asylum seekers, meanwhile, often had to resort to bribes to push their applications through an unresponsive governmental system.

Parliament approved a new Immigration Act in May that would potentially affect the process of adjudicating asylum appeals. However, the new law, as well as its administrative regulations, faced court challenges at year's end. The new law was scheduled to take effect in March 2003.

Protection and Assistance

Recognized refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa lived in urban areas rather than designated refugee camps. Only 2,000 of the neediest refugees received humanitarian assistance.

The overwhelming majority struggled to support themselves, a task made more difficult because they typically lacked proper identity cards due to the government's failure, in most cases, to distribute identity documents as planned. Even refugees with official documentation issued by the national government faced harassment and discrimination because many local officials refused to recognize the validity of refugee documents.

"It is dangerous being a foreigner in South Africa," concluded the director of a local university's Refugee Research Program, which conducted a study of the refugee system. " ... Immigrants, whether asylum seekers, illegal entrants, or legal workers, are faced with rampant xenophobia and a general atmosphere of hostility from citizens, police, and government officials."

Many refugees and asylum seekers blamed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for their plight. They complained that UNHCR failed to provide adequate shelter, health care, or education subsidies. UNHCR officials acknowledged that assistance was meager, but asserted that many refugees had unrealistic expectations.


This 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.