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Obstacles to Asylum: Observations of the Refugee Reception Center in Nyanga

Posted 19 January, 2009 – 12:19 by Dmitri Hess

Law students from UWC and UCT, as members of Student Society for Law and Social Justice conducted short and informal interviews, from the 1st – 5th December 2008, with refugees queuing outside the Refugee Reception Centre (hereafter referred to as RRC) in Nyanga. The students asked those people in the queue – willing to answer, a few simple questions regarding where they are originally from, how long they have been in the country, what papers they were queuing for, how long they have been coming to the Refugee Reception Center to get those papers (i.e. how many previous attempts they have made at receiving such papers at the RRC), and what time they would normally arrive to start queuing.  Besides this information being collected during the interviews a number of other observations were made regarding the situation outside the office, which deserves mention here.

We were not permitted to enter the office in order to speak to people inside or to asses the progress of the queue inside the office. Upon our arrival in the morning there would be at least 200-300 people outside the office – some in a discernable queue while many others linger around the general queuing area. The refugees and asylum seekers are made to queue outside the offices on the pavement, in an unsheltered area, adjacent to a road which is frequented mainly by construction vehicles. There are also no toilet facilities available for the people queuing outside.

On a few occasions people queuing were told that a new queue would be formed in the small courtyard (off the street) outside the office, which disrupts the order of the queue and creates a chaos and a lot of tension amongst those in the queue, only to be told 10minutes later that the queue would have to move back outside, creating more confusion and frustration as the queue has to be reformed. This happened a few times during the brief period we were conducting the interviews, and happens regularly according to those who have been in the queue for long periods. The security guards are generally very antagonistic and aggressive towards those in the queue and were often seen harassing queuing to gain entry or others standing around the queuing area.

Many people, including mothers and their young children, sleep on the pavement outside the RRC the night before in order to try and secure a place in the front of the line, however, this often proves meaningless when the queue is abruptly shifted – as mentioned above. Those people who have no choice but to sleep outside the offices (the night before they queue) all note the dangers  involved when sleeping on the street the worst of these being the chance of being robbed during the night.

The corruption which exists on the part of the security guards manning the entrance is rather blatant and notorious amongst those who frequent the offices (or the queues at least). The queue does not move for long periods and only some people are allowed inside the office; however we observed that most of the people that are permitted entry to the offices do not come from the queue at all, but are often escorted in person, by one of the security guards manning the entrance. Most, if not all, of those interviewed by us explained this to be the norm, noting that syndicates operate outside office and the only way to gain entrance to the office would be by paying a negotiated amount to one of the people operating in such syndicates. The amount payable ranges anywhere between R50 – R300. Some of the people involved in these activities, including both the people paying the bribes as well as those accepting them, willingly and openly discussed the way in which the syndicate operates. The asylum seekers and refugees outside the RRC are approached by people and a fee is negotiated and paid. The refugee/asylum seeker then waits outside the queuing area and is then escorted into the office by a security guard (who identifies the refugee/asylum seeker as having paid the bribe). On a few occasions security guards could be seen leaving the queuing area accompanied by someone and appeared to be negotiating  bribe price themselves and in plain view of anyone outside the office.

Of the few ‘new arrivals’ who received their registration documents and of whom we were able to interview, none had gained entry without having paid the security guards or syndicate operators. It is estimated from our observations and from the interviews conducted with the refugees/asylum seekers that no more than 20 ‘new comers’ are assisted per day.

Here are some observations made by one of our members, Andrew Gasnolar:

What was evident to me on both days (1st and 2nd December) was the complete mismanagement of the resources. There was no structure or organisation to coordinate the efforts of the Centre. The security measures at the gate appeared to just frustrate the entire process instead of streamlining the queuing system. What was lacking at the Home Affairs Refugee Centre was very much the lack of a system, which worked. On the first day there appeared to be anything from about 300 people while the second day estimates must be at least 500 people who have been queuing just to get into the Centre.

From speaking to the people on the ground, it became quite clear that the waiting process frustrates many of them but they are faced with no other option. As far as they can understand, bribery is quite rampant with a ‘syndicate’ of sorts operating in unison with the security guards and they decide who is allowed into the actual Centre. From at least five people I was told that the bribery extends beyond the gate and goes to the heart of the actual Centre. The general trend is that the bribe at the gate may costs anything between R50 – R150 while the bribe on the inside to obtain the papers can be as much as R2500.

On the first day, we attempted to gain access to the Centre and speak to what appeared to be the fortunate few and find out from them what their experiences were and how they actually got in. We were requested to sign in and then we were taken to what appeared to be the person in charge as to whether we had permission to be in the Centre. We were told that we needed to obtain prior permission from the director of the Centre and we were then escorted back to the street. It is unfortunate that we were not able to gain access to the Centre, as we were unable to assess how many applications they receive as well as how their system actually works. On 2 December, I called the Office of the Director of Refugee Affairs (Mr. Richard Sikakane) who was out of office. I was however informed I must send an email to him requesting access and it would then be considered. Apparently, there is no other official empowered to make decisions of this nature.

See also http://www.lrc.org.za/component/content/article/867-2009-03-10-home-affairs-improved-services-to-refugees-cape-argus for coverage on the “Kilico” case, which was brought before the Cape High Court in a bid to improve service delivery for assylum seekers at the department of Home Affairs.