U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2007 - South Africa

South Africa


Refoulement/Physical Protection

South Africa deported tens of thousands of Zimbabwean nationals in 2006 without screening most for refugees or asylum seekers. Police deported refugees, registered asylum seekers, and, in some cases, South African citizens to Zimbabwe. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Government deported more than 55,000 Zimbabweans in the first eight months of 2006 alone. In some cases, the Government did not provide food or water to Zimbabweans during their deportations, which could take as long as 24 hours. Human Rights Watch reported that policed shoved some Zimbabweans out of the windows of a moving train after they paid them bribes to allow them to escape.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported a high rate of success in intervening to prevent the deportation of refugees and asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), Burundi, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

Black and mixed-race neighborhoods throughout South Africa became increasingly xenophobic in 2006. Mobs attacked Somali-run businesses and killed an estimated 100 Somali refugees by year's end, according to refugee groups. Police claimed they could not give an accurate number of Somalis murdered because they do not keep records of ethnicity. In Durban, criminals abducted a Liberian refugee and held him captive for three days until the Durban Organised Crime Unit rescued him.

Human traffickers in South Africa frequently preyed on refugee children from Congo-Kinshasa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe to work in the illegal sex trade. Reportedly, police and immigration officials repeatedly raped young female asylum seekers when they attempted to gain entry into South Africa, although UNHCR could not confirm this.

Police in Limpopo Province, on the border with Zimbabwe, abused Zimbabweans and did not review their legal status before deporting them. South Africa claimed that these individuals were economic migrants rather than asylum seekers, even though 36 percent of applicants for asylum in 2006 were Zimbabwean. South Africa and Zimbabwe jointly announced the creation of a border reception center to manage the flow of migrants between them. The Government indicated that the office would help Zimbabweans get work permits and that the IOM would assist the 2,000 Zimbabweans deported from South Africa each week.

South Africa was party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, all without reservations. The 1998 Refugees Act prohibited refusal of entry, expulsion, or extradition of refugees. Its refugee definition included individuals forced to leave their countries because of "events seriously disturbing or disrupting public order in either a part or the whole of [that] country."

The Act, in effect since 2000, created a two-tier system for refugee status determination. In the first stage, trained immigration officers heard claims and issued decisions at South Africa's five refugee reception offices (Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, and Port Elizabeth). Asylum seekers had the right to appeal to a separate board unless the immigration officer found their claims to be "manifestly unfounded, abusive or fraudulent." Refugees had access to legal counsel at both the initial claim hearing and during their appeal.

The Refugees Act obligated the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs (SCRA) to review any case that asylum officers rejected as "manifestly unfounded, abusive or fraudulent." Legal representation before the SCRA was by invitation only. The SCRA could also review any questions of law raised in the initial stage.

At the end of 2006, the Department of Home Affairs had a backlog of more than 136,000 cases. On World Refugee Day in June, Minister of Home Affairs Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said the Government hoped to clear that backlog over the next year. To expedite asylum claims, the Government used a form to screen asylum seekers and only issued permits to those whose claims were deemed genuine. The Pretoria High Court, however, ruled the forms illegal because asylum seekers with less credible claims did not receive the asylum seeker permits required by the Refugees Act. The Government appealed the ruling, and the case was pending at year's end.

The Department of Home Affairs contracted a biometric security firm to create a fingerprint identification system for refugees in South Africa. The Government also hired more personnel to tackle the backlog at the country's five refugee reception centers and launched a partnership with the International Association of Refugee Law Judges (IARLJ) in September to help train the country's immigration officers.

The Rosettenville Refugee Reception Office in Johannesburg lost all records of registered refugees and asylum seekers in a computer crash and was unable to recover them. In the wake of the crash, it ceased to accept new applications, despite a 2005 court order that it do so.

Voluntary repatriation remained low in 2006. In May 2006, the Government joined UNHCR to announce a voluntary repatriation initiative for the 14,000 Angolan refugees living in South Africa, but few chose to return home. About 80 refugees voluntarily repatriated during the year, and nearly 70 resettled to other countries.

Detention/Access to Courts

In addition to the tens of thousands of Zimbabweans it detained before deporting them, the Government held at least two hundred refugees and asylum seekers during the year. Authorities regularly detained refugees and asylum seekers, often because of lost or expired documents or because they had not been able to access the Government's asylum system because of the severe backlogs. More than 55,000 detainees passed through South Africa's Lindela holding facility, more than 53,000 of them on their way to be deported. Immigration officials violated the Immigration Act by detaining unaccompanied children with adults at detention facilities.

The Department of Home Affairs briefly detained 41 refugees in November after they tried to protest at UNHCR's office, alleging that they had been living on the streets with no support.

Although there were no reports of deaths, after more than 50 in 2005, conditions at the Lindela holding facility were still harsh. There were at least two riots at Lindela during the year: one in July and one in November. During the latter, police fired tear gas into closed cells, injuring at least 10 refugees after they attempted to protest their detention for allegedly carrying fake asylum papers. The July riot began when Congolese refugees protested the length of their detentions and beatings by facility staff. In addition to the reports of violence against detainees, there were also reports of corruption, including officials accepting bribes to arrange escapes. Police detained and threatened to deport refugees convicted of criminal offenses after they served their sentence, claiming that their crime negated their protected status, a violation of Section 2 of the Refugees Act.

The Government contracted Lindela's operation to Bosasa (Pty) Ltd., and while immigration officials were on site during the day, Bosasa was responsible for food, health services, security, and other accommodations for the detainees.

The South African Police Service used a warehouse on a military base near the Zimbabwe border as a detention facility for Zimbabweans awaiting deportation and began building a new detention facility there. Food was in short supply at this facility, and there were minimal accommodations for the detainees.

By law, the Department of Home Affairs had to provide identity documents to recognized refugees, but fewer than 2,000 of the 6,350 refugees who applied for identification books received them in 2006. A program to issue smart cards to refugees for identification was suspended due to technical difficulties, leaving many refugees without sufficient documentation.

Refugees were successful in bringing class action suits on a variety of issues. For example, Somali asylees in Limpopo Province fled to Pretoria after a mob destroyed their possessions and the police refused to file a case on their behalf. They filed a claim with the Pretoria High Court, and the Court's decision upheld the right of the asylees to receive compensation from the Government under the Refugees Act.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

The Constitution's Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of movement to all persons in South Africa, and the Refugees Act affirmed that this applied to refugees. The Refugees Act did not specifically address the right of asylum seekers to freedom of movement, but in practice, South Africa generally respected this right.

South African law allowed refugees and asylum seekers with the appropriate identification and permits to move freely across the country and to settle in any of the nine provinces. However, the Refugees Act prohibited asylum seekers from traveling outside of South Africa without approval from the Department of Home Affairs (DHA). Failure to comply with this statute could result in detention upon asylum seekers' return until asylum claims were resolved, but this generally did not occur if they sought permission to reenter before arriving. Recognized refugees could apply to a panel of UNHCR and DHA officials for international travel documents of which they issued 1,300 in 2006.

Due to DHA's backlog, many refugees could not obtain the valid paperwork that would facilitate such travel. Some officials required asylum seekers to renew their permits on a monthly basis at the original office of their application, which often inhibited travel.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Although the Refugees Act granted refugees the right to work, in practice it was difficult for them to do so. In addition to the difficulty in obtaining documentation, many businesses did not recognize refugees' documents as valid for employment, as they were red rather than the green identification booklets issued to citizens and permanent residents.

Refugees with advanced degrees in engineering, medicine, and finance often resorted to entry-level work in the informal economy. Additionally, the escalation in violence toward refugee businesspersons – especially Somalis – made it increasingly difficult to earn a living.

In December, the Constitutional Court ruled that refugees had the right to work in the private security industry on a case-by-case basis, a field where many refugees found work. The Court found that Section 23 of the Private Security Industry Regulatory Act allowed for an exemption to the citizenship requirement. Despite the ruling, the Government continued to reject refugees' attempts to apply for licenses for the field.

Although refugees qualified for worker's compensation under South Africa's immigration law, many refugees had trouble obtaining it. The Government issued these funds by direct deposit to bank accounts, but many refugees, lacking documentation and therefore bank accounts, could not obtain their compensation. First National Bank allowed refugees to open bank accounts for the first time in 2006.

Public Relief and Education

Refugees had the right to the same level of basic medical services and education as South African nationals under the Refugees Act. Refugees who had not obtained identification booklets, however, often had trouble enrolling their children in schools.

Refugees generally did not qualify for public relief because the law restricted these services to citizens and permanent residents, but a series of lawsuits slowly expanded refugees' rights. These included relief funds for Somali refugees after xenophobic attacks destroyed their businesses. UNHCR made efforts to renew the Refugee Relief Fund, which should benefit refugees and potentially asylum seekers.

After the High Court ruled that South Africa's denial of relief programs to disabled permanent residents was unconstitutional, the NGO Lawyers for Human Rights filed a case to extend these rights to refugees with disabilities. As part of the settlement of this case, the Government drafted a plan that would extend benefits to refugees.

Officially, the Government guaranteed free antiretroviral therapy for all refugees with HIV/AIDS. However, this treatment was difficult to access for many because few health clinics provided it.

The Government did not restrict humanitarian agencies' work with refugees and included refugees in the current UN Development Assistance Framework it developed with the help of the UN country team.


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