South Africa built a special hell for asylum seekers: Refugee Reception Offices

A report released yesterday in Johannesburg reveals “shocking levels of corruption and serial abuse” at South African refugee centers. Of the five Refugee Reception Offices, Marabastad, in Pretoria, wins the Most Corrupt Award … again. The report, while dismaying, is no shock.

According to the report’s introduction, “Established in 1998, South Africa’s asylum system was designed to identify those individuals in need of protection in accordance with the country’s international obligations and democratic character.” By 1998, the South African government had traded in the Reconstruction and Development Programme, or RDP, for the Growth, Employment and Redistribution, or GEAR, strategy, which traded any promise of social justice for something called “growth.” Asylum seekers and refugees didn’t fall into the GEAR strategy, and so by the time South Africa decided it was time for asylum, it was already too late: “The current state of affairs is the product of a deliberate government choice to avoid addressing fundamental issues in the asylum system.”

Here’s Marabastad in 2008: “Asylum applicants at Marabastad have taken to sleeping outside the office, in the hope that this will improve their chances of getting inside. There are regularly between eighty and three hundred people sleeping outside. At night armed criminals visit the site. Incidents of theft are common. There have been several reports of rape. There is no shelter in the vicinity of the office and people often endure rain and very cold conditions. Many women sleep with babies by their side. On some occasions the police have visited during the night and arrested asylum seekers or extorted them for bribes. Fights about places in the queue are common, sometimes degenerating into the throwing of bricks and stones and leading to several cases of hospitalisation. On at least one occasion metropolitan officials arrived in the morning to clear all temporary shelters, bedding, and belongings of people gathered outside the office.” In 2011, “the conditions at Marabastad … still are, to most objective onlookers, appalling.”

And now, in 2015, Marabastad is the most corrupt, and this in South Africa, which had one of the highest asylum and refugee rejection rates in the world last year, rejecting between 90% and 100% of all asylum applications processed from Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ghana, India, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Burundi and Uganda. South Africa is the land where all roads lead to rejection.

To the toxic brew of incompetence, underfunding, and xenophobic and sexist violence, yesterday’s report adds corruption. One has to pay to play, and many are the ways: pay to cross the border, move up the line, renew a permit, pay spurious fines, avoid arrest, and generally improve `service.’

Women figure in this variously. First, the researchers interviewed mostly men because there were more men than women outside the reception centers and because “women were generally less willing to participate.”

Second, in discussing the Department of Home Affairs, or DHA, tepid response to corruption, the report tells a story, “In July 2014, an asylum seeker told Lawyers for Human Rights that a refugee status determination officer (RSDO) at the Marabastad refugee reception office had asked her for R2500 in exchange for refugee status. LHR contacted the counter-corruption unit, which agreed to set up a sting operation.” What followed was a nightmare of bungling and general lack of concern on the part of the DHA, so that, in the end, all the weight falls on the most vulnerable and least able: “Asylum seekers must be willing to come forward, despite fear of reprisals, and must be able to provide … details. The DHA does not target the wider processes outside of these individual complaints.”

Finally, one asylum seeker in Cape Town reports: “People ask for money. Officials don’t help you or tell you what is happening. They play on their phones. Security guards ask for money but not openly. It is a previously made deal. Then they grab the people and take them to the front of the queue. Never women. People from Zim only get a one month extension and other people from other countries get 3 to 6 months.”

Never women.

 

(Photo Credit: Kristy Siegfried / IRIN)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.