Claire van den Heever: Humanitarian in appearance, inhumane in reality


Hana Dalmar was twenty when his mother convinced him to flee Somalia. She was terrified his father would murder him. Being a homosexual in a Muslim family was the ultimate betrayal in Hana’s father’s eyes. Since forbidding his “abnormal” son from attending school, his resentment had only grown.

“Until I kill you, you embarrass me,” he told Hana.

South Africa’s Refugees Act was once recognised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as one of the world’s most progressive. Today South Africa pays only lip service to international human rights norms, said Cape Town-based immigration lawyer Gary Eisenberg.

According to section 3(a) of the act, a person qualifies for refugee status if they have left the country of their nationality because of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted by reason of his or her race, tribe, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group”.

Hana’s mother sold her jewellery and bought her son a ticket out of Somalia on the back of a truck. But, even though refuge outside his country was essential to his survival, the home affairs department declared Hana’s claim “unfounded”.

It took Hana almost two months to lodge his application for asylum at Pretoria’s refugee reception office. “There was a long, long queue. I went up and down, up and down. I slept outside the gate at night,” he said. When he reached the front and underwent a refugee status determination interview, his application joined the irrationally large pile of “unfounded” claims.

He was given the first of many temporary asylum-seeker’s permits, valid for between one and six months, depending on the whim of the official issuing it and – frequently – whether the applicant could afford to pay a bribe.

Hana submitted a request for an appeal hearing and left. Almost four years later he is still waiting.

“The asylum system is in a state of collapse,” said Sharon Ekambaram, manager of the refugee and migrant rights programme at Lawyers for Human Rights. The high rate of first-time rejections, such as Hana’s, puts immense strain on the Refugee Appeal Board. The home affairs department’s decision to close Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town’s refugee reception offices in 2011 and 2012 has paralysed an already failing system.

“The urban refugee reception office is the lynchpin of the refugee system,” said Corey Johnson of the Cape Town-based Scalabrini Centre, which provides support to asylum-seekers and refugees.

“There is a backlog of between 130 000 and a quarter of a million cases, depending on if you count people with valid or expired permits.”

The Scalabrini Centre challenged the closure of Cape Town’s refugee office in court in 2012 and again in 2014. In September 2017 the Supreme Court of Appeal ordered home affairs to reopen it by March 31 2018. But this has not happened.

A spokesperson from the public works department said the new refugee office would open soon and that a request for tender for premises had been put out. Internal communication between the public works and home affairs departments and the Legal Resources Centre reveals that an advertisement for the tender had still not been placed on May 31 2018.

“The initial closure of the PE and CT refugee reception offices is part of the ongoing unlawful acts that the home affairs department is carrying out by implementing the Amendments to the Refugee Bill that is yet to be ratified by Parliament,” said Ekambaram. “Closing refugee reception offices is the first measure towards establishing processing centres [at the borders] which are actually detention centres.”

The so-called processing centres are one part of a planned Border Management Authority Bill, championed by Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba. “Should the Border Management Authority Bill be passed by the National Council of Provinces this year, it will place a monopolistic control of all border-related matters – including the movement of all goods and the 40 million people entering and exiting the country – in the hands of home affairs,” said Eisenberg.

“The government has not done enough to prescreen applicants for asylum,” he said. “Interviews need to be conducted by experienced, non-corrupt individuals.”

But, years before the Cape Town refugee reception office was closed, the system was already crippled, its inefficiency well known. The finding of Judge Denis van Reenen in a case against the Minister of Home Affairs (and others) in Cape Town’s High Court in 2008 was that there was a complete lack of political will to turn around the refugee reception office, so that it would start providing a plausible service, said Eisenberg. “The refugee reception office was not able to provide an adequate public service in the Western Cape. It’s been plagued from the very start.”

The refugee reception office closures have stemmed a tide of applications. “The department treats the asylum system more like immigration control than the humanitarian system it was intended to be,” said Johnson. “It’s focused on reducing numbers. The fewer applications a year, the better, regardless of the number of actual refugees trying to apply who remain undocumented in the interim. There’s been a trend downwards in the past four years from about 72 000 applications to 24 000.”

“There is a 96% rejection rate,” said Ekambaram. “The Musina refugee reception office has recorded a 100% rejection rate for the past three years.”

During one of Hana’s many visits to Pretoria’s refugee reception office to renew his permit, he was attacked by a group of Somalis who didn’t approve of his sexual orientation. He fled again – to Cape Town.

He visits the temporary refugee reception office in Cape Town several times a week, hoping to renew his latest permit, which expired in April. His right to work has expired, too. The staff at the temporary office are abusive. “I’m not dealing with a gay,” said one woman who routinely barred him from entering the building.

Johnson is hopeful the Cape Town refugee reception office will reopen before the end of the year.

“The home affairs department’s non-compliance has led us to approach the court again where we will request the appointment of a special master of the court.” But whether people like Hana will be assisted with any degree of efficiency or respect is another matter.

“The government is not driven by sufficient political will to optimise the refugee reception offices,” said Eisenberg. “The asylum system is an unintelligent, inefficient system driven by a theoretical claim to act in accordance with international humanitarian norms. But it’s a practical failure.”

– Van den Heever is a journalist and author who, after a decade in Europe and Asia, returned to South Africa to write stories about the human desire to move