Refugees and asylum-seekers
29 October 2004
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Africa has over 4.2-million refugees, second only to Asia. Roughly the equivalent number of people are seeking asylum or are refugees in Africa as in Europe (2004 statistics).
South Africa did not recognize refugees until 1993, and it was only following the transition to democracy that the country became a signatory to the UN and Organization of African Unity Conventions on Refugees.
However, refugees – even if they lacked official recognition – have been a significant feature on the South Africa landscape and a concern in the country for decades. In the 1980s, South Africa was home to an estimated 350 000 Mozambican refugees, many of whom have now returned.
A Refugee Act governing the admission of asylum seekers was passed in 1998, and became effective in 2000.
A refugee can apply for permanent residence after five years of continuous residence since the date of asylum
being granted. Only recognised refugees can apply for identity documents and an asylum application should be adjudicated within 180 days, including the appeal.
Institutions and organisations that can help refugees are:
post-apartheid South Africa has become both an imagined Mecca of economic opportunity, or a haven from war-torn or troubled homelands.
Most of South Africa's refugees come from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Angola and Somalia.
In the first five months of 2003, South Africa received 14 000 new arrivals, bringing the total number of persons of concern to 90 000, comprising 24 000 recognised refugees and 66 000 asylum-seekers.
In some instances the increase in the number of refugees in the country has created tensions with South African citizens, many of whom have blamed escalating crime on illegal immigrants and refugees. Xenophobia has become a problem in some areas of the country.
Programmes and institutions that can assist with xenophobia:
According to the UNHCR, of the 23 000 refugees recognised in 2002, many arrived via several asylum or transit countries. They came expecting to improve their lives drastically, but many end up disappointed when they fail to find jobs or access social services.
Doctors, engineers and teachers have had to settle for menial jobs. While their children's access to primary school has improved, it is much harder at the secondary and tertiary levels.
Unlike all other African countries, South Africa does not have any refugee camps. Asylum seekers and refugees live in urban regions and survive largely without assistance. If they need support, they approach local government structures. Thus capacity building among key professionals has become one of UNHCR's major objectives in South Africa.
A good example is Mbekweni – a remote township of 70 000 people in the heart of the wine-producing Paarl Valley about 100km from Cape Town.
refugees, who originate from Angola, Burundi, the DRC, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Somalia, live among the local community. They face problems because assistance is not institutionalised and resources from the international community are limited. Many have tried to cope by doing petty trade, selling sundries such as sweets, cigarettes and matches by the roadside. A lucky few have found casual employment as security guards and car washers.
Delays in refugee status determination are one of the main challenges faced by asylum seekers in South Africa. In the last two years, UNHCR has trained 40 lawyers to help the South African Department of Home Affairs clear its backlog of cases. But it piled up again after many of the lawyers left for greener pastures. There are now some 52 000 cases awaiting status determination in South Africa.
If any of your rights, as defined in the Bill of Rights,
have been violated, you can file an online complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission (click on "complaints" in the top menu bar).
Parts of this article have been adapted from UNHCR
and Migration Information Source