PRETORIA, South Africa – Sheila* woke at 3 a.m. on a cold Tuesday morning. After hitchhiking three rides from Johannesburg, she completed the 38-mile journey to Pretoria and arrived at the Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Office.
Joining a queue of fellow migrants, the 38-year-old from Zimbabwe realized there were no more than 75 people ahead of her, which meant she stood a good chance of submitting her asylum seeker’s permit for a renewal stamp.
Three hours later – after pushing and shoving in the crowd, and bribing a security guard to hold her spot in a line that had grown to more than 500 people – she finally managed to submit her permit.
About 10 a.m., a woman came out of the office holding a pile of papers and started calling names. Those called were ushered to a South African police truck parked at the corner of the yard.
Without explanation, Sheila and about 45 other migrants were crammed into the truck and taken to the Lindela Repatriation Center, where they were told they had been arrested because their applications for refugee status had been rejected. She was detained at Lindela for four months, then deported to Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, just across the border from northern South Africa.
More than a million people have sought asylum in South Africa since 2006, according to the country’s Department of Home Affairs (DHA). Most come from Zimbabwe, while others are from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique and other African nations, as well as countries such as India and Pakistan.
Amid a backlog of asylum applications, an increasing number of asylum seekers have been deported in recent months, often without due process, say South African human rights groups.
Between 50 and 150 people are arrested each day when they attempt to renew their permits, according to estimates by rights groups. They are detained at Lindela and eventually deported to their home country.
“We are concerned about the possibilities of abuse of process,” said Sharon Ekambaram, manager of Lawyers for Human Rights’ Refugee and Migrant Rights Project. In many cases, asylum seekers do not receive written decisions of final rejection, but are merely advised verbally and given a notice to appear before the immigration inspectorate for deportation, she said.
Asylum seeker permits – also known as Section 22 permits – are valid for six months and make it legal for people to stay in South Africa pending a decision on their asylum application. The system calls for several rounds of reviews before an asylum seeker can be rejected and deported.
Before the permit expires, the asylum seeker is interviewed by a refugee status determination officer, who makes a ruling – either granting asylum, rejecting the application or referring questions of law to the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs (SCRA). In case of rejection, an asylum seeker can appeal within 30 days. The Refugee Appeal Board then conducts another hearing before deciding whether to confirm, set aside or substitute the initial decision.
Observers claim, however, that this process is not being followed.
“We have instances where the SCRA had not made a decision, despite the contrary being communicated to the client,” Ekambaram said. “We have requested written decisions signed by the SCRA, and while we have noted a few receiving some, it appears not to be widely used.”
The African Diaspora Forum, a nongovernmental organization established in 2008 to safeguard the rights of migrants in South Africa, said it had not held a dialogue with the DHA about the issue since 2016. DHA officials “are not ready to be engaged on the matter,” said African Diaspora Forum Chairman Marc Gbaffou, an Ivorian refugee who lives in South Africa.
Gbaffou said many migrants are held for 120 days or more in Lindela, beyond the legal maximum of 90 days. “Most of these would have had their permits expired because they were denied a chance to renew them by the guards and officials wanting to deal with a certain number,” he said.
Asylum System in Crisis
The Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, a nonprofit organization formed by political and economic refugees in South Africa, said it has received many reports of arrests and deportations in recent months.
“We have visited Lindela and noted with serious concern that those arrested for deportation include those either attempting to apply for or renewing asylum and refugee status,” said Gabriel Shumba, executive director of Zimbabwe Exiles Forum. “This practice is not only insensitive, but falls afoul of international prescripts.”
Ekambaram said the DHA’s actions ignore South Africa’s international and domestic legal commitments. “[South Africa’s] Refugees Act established a parallel legal framework, separate from the Immigration Act, which sets up its own procedures for the detention of asylum seekers and refugees and prohibits their detention as illegal foreigners under the Immigration Act,” she said.
“Yet, despite the existence of a separate legal regime for asylum seekers and refugees, the DHA has applied the Immigration Act, arresting [asylum seekers] as illegal foreigners and subjecting them to arbitrary, indefinite and unlawful detention pending deportation,” she said. “These activities fall outside of the [DHA’s] authority. The current asylum protection system is in crisis and is effectively nonfunctional.”
The DHA declined to respond to questions from Refugees Deeply. Lawyers for Human Rights has submitted written and verbal requests to the DHA for an independent oversight mechanism, in an effort to hold the department accountable.
Sheila initially fled to South Africa from Lupane, Zimbabwe, to escape political persecution. She received death threats from state security agents, she claimed, because of her active role in the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party in Zimbabwe.
When she was deported to Beitbridge, she feared for her life if she returned to Lupane. So she came back to South Africa and now lives undocumented in Johannesburg – too afraid to claim asylum again.
“I want to be legal in South Africa because I cannot keep running away from the police,” she said. “But I am now afraid to go back and apply for new asylum because I might get arrested again. For now, I will have to keep running from the police or bribing them.
“I wish the 2018 elections will bring in a new government and make things normal in Zimbabwe again, so that I can return and live a normal life.”
*Names changed for safety reasons.