SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

World Refugees Day: Assessing South Africa's Refugee Protection System

Image: (left to right) Abdikadir Khalif Mohamed, Devon Turner, Fr. Peter-John Pearson, Corey Johnson, and Nabeelah Mia

Of the 34.3 million refugees around the word (United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 2023a), South Africa hosts about 250,250 (combined refugees and asylum seekers) (UNHCR, 2023b). Refugees in South Africa are primarily from Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Burundi, and Zimbabwe (UNHCR, 2023b). South Africa continues to make efforts in strengthening the asylum and refugees system and in upholding their rights and access to certain services including education, health, documentation, legal services, employment, and other services that are essential to their well-being.

This is guided by laws that grant protection to refugees such as the Refugee Act, 1998 (No 130 of 1998), 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees,1969 OAU Convention Governing The Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees,1993 Basic Agreement between the Government of South Africa and the Immigration Act of South Africa (South African Government, 2023; Scalabrini Centre, 2023). Furthermore, South Africa does not have an encampment policy, asylum seekers and refugees under section 27 of the Constitution have the right to freedom of movement within South Africa and are not limited or confined to certain spaces but may go to any area (Scalabrini Centre, 2023).

Despite its commitments to integrate refugees and ensure their rights to protection, refugees and asylum seekers continue to face access barriers. The law gives providence to certain rights but in practice the situation is different. In many cases refugees and asylum seekers are denied access to education, documentation, employment, limitations to free movement and health care due to their status (Ramjathan-Keogh, 2017). This signifies the need for continuous efforts in advocating for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees for them to live a dignified life and access various services and needs that are relevant for their integration and well-being.

This year we celebrate World Refugees Day by acknowledging the opening of the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office (CTRRO) in Epping at 12 Grenville Avenue on 20 March 2023. This presents a victory after it had been closed for over 10 years. The opening came after years of court battles since the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) closed its Cape Town Refugees Office. To recognize World Refugees Day, members of the Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa (SIHMA) staff attended a conference and discussion: “Assessing South Africa’s refugee protection system in 2023.” The event was hosted in partnership with the Scalabrini Centre, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Somali Association of South Africa (SASA), the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison office, and the Legal Resources Centre (LRC).

Fr. Peter-John Pearson of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office emceed the event, and featured speakers included Corey Johnson from the Scalabrini Centre’s advocacy team; chairperson of SASA, Abdikadir Khalif Mohamed; attorney Devon Turner from LRC; and Nabeelah Mia from Lawyers for Human Rights.

Scalabrini Centre’s Corey Johnson discussed the conditions of the original closure of the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office (CTRO) in 2012. In the CTRRO’s last quarter open, they received over 5,000 applications from asylum seekers, making it the 2nd busiest refugee reception office in the country. To quell the high demand, DHA sought to restrict the number of applicants by limiting the number of applications per day and requiring the completion of pre-questionaries, and, in some cases, requiring transit permits. By the end of 2012, DHA claimed that operating the urban offices required too many resources and decided to close 3 of the RROs permanently. This decision had devastating consequences for refugee communities in Cape Town.

Abdikadir Khalif Mohamed, chairperson of the Somali Association of South Africa (SASA), spoke about the challenges presented by CTRO’s closure. Refugees resettling in Cape Town had to travel to RROs in other cities and at the border towns of South Africa to apply for asylum or renew their refugee statuses. Since many people attempting to travel to the RROs didn’t have identification, they faced difficulty acquiring transportation tickets. Some asylum seekers relied on an informal minibus network to get to the RROs. Those that did make it to the RROs often had to stand in line all day only to be told to come back the next day, or the next week. Many people would return to Cape Town having not even talked to or served by the DHA officials. Unaccompanied children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with health issues found the journey particularly difficult. Without documentation — and with no accessible way to get it —refugee communities experienced difficulties accessing healthcare, education, and other resources. Further, DHA fined people for not renewing their documents, even though the closure of the RROs had made the process almost impossible.

Next, Devin Turner, attorney from the LRC discussed the legal strategies used to mount various court cases against DHA. He discussed the original Scalabrini v. DHA case, followed by the 2017 Supreme Court Appeal. The court decided that DHA’s closure of the urban RROs was unlawful and was ordered to reopen the centres, but DHA was slow to act. In 2018, LRC attempted to appoint a Special Master to oversee the development of the new CTRRO. The case instead proceeded through a case management system, as the judge met with DHA every month to confirm progress on the centre. DHA was also required to submit written reports to ensure accountability. Devin emphasized the legal efforts would have failed without the tireless activism taking place on the ground in communities, helping to put pressure on DHA and the courts.

Finally, Nabeelah Mia from Lawyers for Human rights discussed the broader legal and political landscape and the best paths forward for advocacy. She described the closure of the urban RROs as a symptom of the larger breakdown of the asylum system in South Africa; for example, she shared that the enormous backlog in asylum seeker applications would take the DHA 69 years to sort through, according to estimates by the United Nations. Upon the reopening of the Cape Town and Pretoria RROs, the new online application for asylum has presented new challenges. Many incoming refuges don’t have reliable access to WiFi, smartphones, or computers. So, even if an individual can submit an application at an internet café, they may not be able to check for responses very often. Additionally, there have already been cases where no response is given at all. Nabeelah emphasized that these new problems must be raised to DHA and the courts immediately, because the longer the new RROs are operating, the more systemic the issues will become.

Following the speakers was a discussion among attendees regarding lessons that can be learned from the successful legal battle to reopen the urban RROs, the issue presented by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA)’s online asylum application system, and best practices for advocating for clients. Attendees shared the challenges that they have personally faced or that they have witnessed through their clients. Again, the importance of teamwork between formal and legal challengers and activists on the ground was emphasised. Additionally, there was discussion about combatting institutionalized xenophobia and educating communities. Attendees and speakers agreed that the fight isn’t over — different stakeholders must be involved and mobilized to keep the pressure on DHA and ensure that the rights and dignity of refugees and asylum seekers are protected.

The new CTRRO will receive all new asylum and refugee applications. Various organisations are available to offer information on the rights and services available for asylum seekers and refugees in Cape Town, including the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town. For more information, please visit their website on:


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