Awaiting Asylum: The shifting policies towards asylum seekers in South Africa

By Rachel Brown

Hemmed in between a thin metal fence and the thick walls of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) Customs House office, a long line of expectant refugees and asylum seekers snakes along the edge of a busy Cape Town highway. In some spots, entire families huddle in line, wrapped in dark sweaters which insulate them from the late fall chill.  The children have likely been pulled from school, and the parents have likely taken off work. Many in line have been waiting all day, or all day for many days, to renew their asylum seekers permits. A few weeks later, in an effort at crowd control, guards douse a similar line in the same spot with water from a fire hose.

Most of those in line have not been recognized as refugees by the South African government, but rather have been given asylum seekers permits and await interviews that will determine their refugee status. And that wait can be long. Meanwhile, asylum seekers permits, which allow them to legally live, work, and study in South Africa, must be renewed every few months in a process that can require days in line and often a little bribery.

Conditions for waiting refugees and asylum seekers have improved somewhat since Adonis Musati, a Zimbabwean, died of starvation after reportedly sleeping in a cardboard box while waiting outside the DHA refugee office for a month. However, many challenges remain and these challenges are mounting.  South Africa’s immigration laws provide limited paths to accommodate economic migrants, which increases pressure on the asylum system. As Kathryn Hoeflich, the director of the Cape Town Refugee Centre, an organization that assists refugees and asylum seekers, explained, “the asylum process is fairly well broken.”

The process is breaking down further after the closing of Refugee Reception Offices (RROs) in the cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Port Elizabeth.  RROs are administered by the DHA and are the sites where refugees and asylum seekers receive and renew their documents. The closure of the Cape Town RRO meant that no new permits could be issued in Cape Town, however existing asylum seekers’ permits can be renewed at the DHA Customs House office.

Young men wait outside the Department of Home Affairs Marabastad Refugee Reception Office in Pretoria. The wait to renew or receive an asylum seekers permit can sometimes take days.
Young men wait outside the Department of Home Affairs Marabastad Refugee Reception Office in Pretoria. The wait to renew or receive an asylum seekers permit can sometimes take days (Brown/TYG).

In recent years South African cities have received an influx of refugees, putting pressure on urban RROs.  In 2009, South Africa received approximately 220,000 applications for asylum – comparable to the number of applications received in all of Europe – making it the top destination in the world for asylum seekers. A large number of those seeking asylum were fleeing turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, and especially Zimbabwe. South Africa, with a higher standard of living than surrounding nations, has become a destination of choice for both asylum seekers, those fleeing persecution in their homelands, and economic migrants, those searching for better financial opportunities or jobs.

Such a large influx of immigrants – both economically and politically motivated – has led to competition for employment and resources with existing residents, and this has contributed to xenophobia within South Africa. Among some struggling South Africans there is a perception that migrants are taking jobs, homes, and social services away from native-born residents.


Dressed in a flowing rose pink headscarf and dress, and accentuating her speech with arcs of henna-stained fingertips, a Somali refugee and the head of a Somali women’s association in Cape Town, explained the needs of her group. These included physical objects such as desks and computers, as well as less tangible wishes, such as greater understanding between involved groups . Unfortunately, with Somali immigrants among those most harmed by xenophobic attacks, achieving understanding has not been easy. Manifestations of xenophobia range from small slights, such as whispers of “makwerekwere,” a babble-language term for foreigners often used when passengers from Zimbabwe or the Congo sit down on a minibus, to full-scale attacks such as those in May 2008 that left nearly 60 dead and hundreds wounded. Since hostility is largely directed towards black Africans from outside the country, some refer to the phenomenon as “Afrophobia.” Unsurprisingly, violence against foreigners has predominately occurred in poor areas where fears of economic competition are greatest.


The continued hostility immigrants face stands in stark contrast to the ample accommodations made for refugees and asylum seekers under South African law.

“On the face of it, the situation looks very good in terms of protection and access to asylum,” explained Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, head of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Program at the organization Lawyers for Human Rights. In 1996, following the end of apartheid and the country’s first fully democratic elections, South Africa ratified the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, and in 2000, South Africa’s Refugees Act was implemented.  These documents were signed by the new government’s leaders, some of whom had once fled political persecution in South Africa and become refugees and exiles themselves. For example, former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki spent 28 years in exile. Today, asylum seekers are granted freedom of movement and are able to work while waiting for a verdict on whether they will receive refugee status. Moreover, unlike in many African nations, they are not required to live in camps.

But great policies on paper do not always translate into practice. As Hoeflich points out, “the Refugee Act is a lovely piece of policy and the constitution is amazing, but South Africa struggles with the implementation.” Charles Mutabazi, the Director of the Agency for Refugee Education, Skill Training and Advocacy (ARESTA) in Cape Town, seconded this analysis. Mutabazi, like many asylum seekers, fled to South Africa from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. The challenge, he explained, is “to bridge the gap between the policy and the policy implementation.” Unfortunately, rather than implementing its policies, the government may be opting to change them.


Upon arrival in South Africa, asylum seekers have 14 days to present themselves at an RRO to file for a permit.  In mid-2011, there were RROs in six South African cities (Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Musina). That year, the RROs in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg were closed, and in July 2012, the Cape Town office, the only RRO in the Western Cape, was also closed. The government claims that the Cape Town office was closed because the lease on the building expired and that neighboring businesses considered the center to be a public nuisance. A new RRO has opened in Pretoria and absorbed some of the cases from Johannesburg, but the three closures are being challenged in court by organizations including Lawyers for Human Rights and the Scalabrini Centre, an organization that assists migrants in Cape Town. Many opponents of the RRO shutdowns, including the Scalabrini Centre’s Corey Johnson, believe that the closures are part of a broader strategy that is designed to move the processing of incoming refugees – and thus the refugees themselves – towards the border and away from major cities.

The line of refugees and asylum seekers waiting outside the Department of Home Affairs Office at the Customs House on the Foreshore in Cape Town (Brown/TYG).
The line of refugees and asylum seekers waiting outside the Department of Home Affairs Office at the Customs House on the Foreshore in Cape Town (Brown/TYG).

To replace the urban offices, the government proposes to open a new reception office in Lebombo, near the border with Mozambique. In 2012, Mkuseli Apleni, the Director General of the DHA, argued that such an office would actually be more convenient for asylum seekers since it would allow them to file applications upon first entering South Africa, and save them from having to “travel across the country to lodge their claims at a refugee Reception Centre within the stipulated 14 days.” However, this rationale fails to take account of the fact that permits need to be renewed on a regular basis. As Marilize Ackermann, an advocacy officer at the Scalabrini Centre explained, “the whole point of having the offices all over is so that people can have their claims administered wherever they are living, wherever their children are in school.”

If asylum seekers are forced to travel to the border every few months to renew their permits, not only will their professional and family lives be disrupted, but some may find it so difficult that they simply let their permits expire. Others may decide that they have no choice but to relocate to border areas. According to a 2012 report by the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants, to prevent a humanitarian crisis with asylum seekers on the border, the government may need to provide food, shelter, and health care in informal refugee camps.  During the court case over the closure of the Cape Town RRO, government documents emerged that identified border crossings where temporary refugee camps could potentially be situated. In media statements, the DHA maintains that there is no plan to move towards a refugee camp system. But any policy changes that do make it more difficult for asylum seekers to live and work in urban areas may discourage migrants from heading to South Africa. As Ackermann put it, “if it’s not attractive then people won’t come here.”

South African courts have, thus far, ordered the DHA to reopen the RROs in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The DHA has appealed the Cape Town case, and for now both RROs remain closed.  According to Ramjathan-Keogh, “They [the DHA] still seem to be very determined to close those offices and move asylum processing to the border.” The asylum seekers and refugees, who have already moved far, may find themselves following the RROs and be on the move yet again.

Rachel Brown ’15 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics major in Saybrook College. Contact her at .