In violation of a court order, the Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office will not re-open its doors on Tuesday morning, leaving thousands of asylum seekers stranded without access to adequate legal rights or services.
“We note our disappointment that the Department of Home Affairs has disregarded the court order that compels them to re-open by February 9. We have not seen any progress towards reopening the Port Elizabeth centre,” said Patricia Erasmus, head of the refugees and migrants program at Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR).
Erasmus said that LHR would consider instituting contempt of court proceedings if it did not see evidence of significant progress towards re-opening from Home Affairs.
Home Affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete confirmed that the department had missed the deadline. He insisted that it was doing its best but was up against significant logistical barriers. “There are a number of logistical matters we are trying to sort out. We are in communication with concerned parties trying to explain those logistical issues, but it’s on the way,” said Tshwete.
Tshwete refused to confirm what those logistical barriers were, but the Daily Maverick obtained a copy of the department’s most recent progress report on the subject, delivered to stakeholders. The report identified a funding shortage, a personnel shortage, technical challenges and the difficulty in finding suitable premises as reasons why it would not be able to re-open the office on time.
The Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office has been a subject of considerable discord between government and civil society since the decision to shut it down in 2011. That decision has been challenged in several courts, all of which returned the same verdict: the decision was unlawful and the Refugee Reception Office must re-open. Most recently, in August 2015, the Constitutional Court confirmed a Supreme Court of Appeal decision which required Home Affairs to re-open the Port Elizabeth office by February 9.
The Somali Association of South Africa (SASA), a diaspora organisation, led the legal battle with representation from LHR to re-open the office, which processes the claims of asylum seekers. In its absence, would-be refugees in the area had to trek to Pretoria or Durban to have their cases heard, a long and expensive journey that made it difficult for many – and impossible for some – to access basic legal rights.
“It is very expensive, it is contrary to human rights and the constitution of the country,” said a spokesman from SASA.
Marc Gbaffou, chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the government’s failure to abide by the court’s directive.
“Unfortunately we are now in a situation whereby when government says something, you ask yourself is it really going to happen?”
Gbaffou said the decision to close the Port Elizabeth office forced many genuine asylum seekers to become illegal immigrants in the country, as they did not have the means to get to another Refugee Reception Office. “Refugees in Port Elizabeth, what do they do now? It is ironic: many officials complain that there are too many illegal immigrants in the country, but you must ask yourself, why then isn’t the government helping people to not be illegal?”
Jacob van Garderen, national director for LHR, said that the failure to re-open the Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office will have serious consequences. “The real concern is that it continues to have severe implications for asylum seekers in South Africa who are left without the real protection that the government is obliged by our own law, and international law, to provide. It increases the number of people who are undocumented, increasing the number who are vulnerable. People are falling through the cracks by their 1000s simply because they have nowhere to process their applications,” he said.
In 2011, there were six Refugee Reception Offices nationwide. That number is down to three (in Pretoria, Durban and Messina) as government executes a controversial plan to move refugee processing to border areas, in a bid to keep asylum seekers out of cities. DM
Photo: City Hall at Market Square in Port Elizabeth (Wikimedia Commons, by Matthew Roth)