U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2006 - South Africa

South Africa


Refoulement/Physical Protection

In 2005, the Government deported tens of thousands of undocumented Zimbabweans without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum. Officials also reportedly repatriated asylum seekers immediately at the airport without allowing them to apply for protection.

The 1998 Refugees Act forbade the expulsion, extradition, or denial of entry of refugees and asylum seekers. It came into effect in 2000 and included the broader refugee definition of the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. It provided for a three-stage refugee status determination, including the right to appeal to a separate board, the system was fraught with delays that prevented thousands of asylum seekers from gaining recognition and protection. Delays sometimes lasted years despite the 180-day timeline set forth in regulations. At year's end, 140,000 asylum seekers were still awaiting decisions, 28,500 of whom had applied in 2005.

In 2005, the Pretoria High Court ordered the Government to establish a comprehensive plan that would reduce the backlogs and improve access to asylum. After additional delays and litigation, the Government committed to hiring at least 50 more staffers.

Officials sought bribes at all stages of the process, including for the scheduling of appointments. Asylum seekers paid from $60 to $600 to intermediaries who bribed corrupt officials. In February, the Government arrested two officials of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) for offering fraudulent documents to Zimbabweans and dismissed several other DHA officials during the year for corruption. Many asylum seekers slept outside reception centers for a hearing appointment.

Detention/Access to Courts

The Government continued to detain thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who lacked proper documentation and many who did not. During the year, at least 53 asylum seekers died while in detention at the Lindela Repatriation Centre, where conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary. The Centre also lacked appropriate medical staff, and guards reportedly beat asylum seekers. An October government commission criticized the conditions and the lack of medical services at Lindela where, on average, one nurse, often without training, was responsible for over 6,000 detainees.

The Government detained asylum seekers even though many lacked documentation because of delays in the asylum process, even detaining those waiting at government offices to file applications. While awaiting judicial review, the Government detained hundreds of asylum seekers well beyond the 30-day legal limit. Refugees could challenge their detention in court, but lack of resources and delays in the system made the courts an ineffectual remedy.

Authorities made no arrest in the 2004 attacks killing 7 Somali refugees or in the alleged killings of as many as 28 refugees in 2002 and 2003.

The Refugees Act required the authorities to issue identification cards to refugees and permits to asylum seekers, but asylum seekers waited up to a year for permits and received no protection from deportation in the interim. Government regulations granted those found without valid documentation 14 days to submit an asylum application to the Refugee Reception Office (RRO).

Freedom of Movement and Residence

The Government did not maintain any system of segregating or physically confining refugees. By law, refugees and asylum seekers with valid identification and permits were free to move about the country.

With limited exceptions, however, officials required refugees and asylum seekers to renew their permits (valid for two years for refugees and one to two months for asylum seekers) at the same office where they had originally applied.

Authorities arrested and detained refugees for traveling abroad without documents and asylum seekers for doing so without prior authorization. The Refugees Act granted refugees the right to international travel documents. Service providers, however, reported that obtaining them was extremely difficult and that the interview process was equivalent to a full status determination which some failed. Furthermore, such documents were valid only for the remaining duration of their refugee permits and refugees could not renew them until after they had expired, making it unlikely that destination countries would issue visas.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

The Refugees Act granted refugees the right to seek employment. Asylum seekers with documentation could work legally but such documentation was difficult to obtain and only good for one to three months, rendering it virtually useless for employment. In Johannesburg, however, the RRO denied or restricted work permits for asylum seekers. The 2001 Security Industry Regulation Act prohibited refugees from working in the private security industry, which had previously employed many refugees to guard parking lots. The police, however, arrested and confiscated the goods of traders caught without licenses.

The law did not restrict documented refugees' right to own property or businesses. Loans, however, were difficult for refugees to obtain due to the limited duration of their papers and impossible for those without documentation. Refugees could open bank accounts but had difficulty withdrawing money after their two-year documents expired. Asylum seekers had even more difficulty with their one- to three-month permits.

Public Relief and Education

The Refugees Act granted refugees, but not asylum seekers, the right to basic medical services and primary education on par with nationals. Refugees could apply for an exemption to school fees, but many still could not afford uniforms, transportation, and other costs. A 2003 survey found that health service providers refused 17 percent of refugees who sought emergency services. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees trained health service providers and reported that thereafter, fewer refugees complained.

The Government did not restrict humanitarian agencies' assistance to refugees but its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper did not include protection of refugees.


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