South Africa hosted nearly 104,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2003, including more than 26,000 recognized refugees and more than 78,000 asylum seekers whose asylum applications were still under governmental review at year's end. The more than 26,000 recognized refugees in South Africa included more than 9,000 from Congo-Kinshasa, nearly 7,000 from Somalia, about 6,000 from Angola, nearly 2,000 from Burundi, and some 1,000 each from Rwanda and Congo-Brazzaville. The more than 78,000 asylum seekers whose applications for refugee status were pending with the government at year's end included some 13,000 from Congo-Kinshasa, more than 9,000 from Kenya, nearly 7,000 each from Nigeria and Pakistan.

Asylum Numbers

More than 80 percent of the 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. Government officials granted approval to some 1,500 asylum applicants during the year and rejected 300. Nearly half of all newly approved asylum applicants were from Somalia.

Asylum seekers filed more than 30,000 new asylum applications during 2003, stretching an asylum adjudication system already struggling to cope with a tremendous backlog. "The backlog of asylum applications reached record proportions, with processing capacity no greater than the previous year," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported in November. Government authorities have received 140,000 asylum applications since 1994.

Asylum Determination Process

Unlike most African countries, South Africa conducts individual interviews with virtually all asylum applicants to determine their status and uses both the UN Refugee Convention and the Organization for African Unity definitions. 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. Recognized refugees must renew their applications every two years. The government's Refugee Appeal Board employed six assessors, who adjudicated some 4,000 asylum appeals during 2003, but large backlogs remained.

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, increasingly had to bribe to push their applications through the governmental system. "There is ample evidence that significant amounts of money are exchanging hands between asylum seekers and refugees on the one hand and interpreters and Home Affairs officials on the other," UNHCR reported in December. A new Immigration Act, which Parliament approved in May 2002, became law in April 2003. The new Act called for the government to issue permits to asylum seekers upon entry into the country, giving them 14 days to report to one of five registration centers for status determination.

Protection and Assistance

Recognized refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa lived in urban areas rather than designated refugee camps. Only refugees and asylum seekers UNHCR deemed most vulnerable received limited education, health care, and shelter assistance. The overwhelming majority struggled to support themselves because 99 percent did not have proper identity cards due to the government's failure, in most cases, to distribute them. Many local officials refused to recognize the validity of refugee documents. "Some 44 percent of refugees survive on one meal a day, with 21 percent saying they and their families often go hungry," according to the UNHCR survey released in December. Many refugees and asylum seekers 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.


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