The South African asylum system

The White Paper plans fundamental changes to the South African asylum system,5 which has caused deep concern within civil society.

Why the White Paper wants to change the asylum system

The White Paper finds the current asylum system to be overburdened, under-funded and non-functioning. Asylum adjudications take years, and many asylum-seekers hold expired documentation. On this basis, the White Paper plans to overhaul the asylum system.

In our opinion, the challenges faced in the asylum system do not warrant a change in law. These challenges are challenges of implementation, communication, and commitment. For example, many asylum seeker hold expired permits not through a fault of their own, but because they cannot access Refugee Reception Offices (RROs), properly extended.6

What the White Paper proposes: ‘Asylum Seeking Processing Centres’

In a move towards an encampment system, the White Paper lays down plans to construct Asylum Seeker Processing Centres on South Africa’s northern borders. We have expressed deep concern about this proposal. We believe these Processing Centers would be seriously detrimental to the rights and realities of asylum seekers, refugees and South Africans alike. We fear that creating detention centres in remote areas of the country will result in the long-term detention of vulnerable people without adequate support or adequate conditions. Such detention is unconstitutional and contrary to international law. Aside from being expensive, research shows that encampment policies do not deter migration – and could cause resentment from local South African citizens.

We believe that we should concentrate on improving the current system – with a better resourced and effectively managed asylum system based on the current Refugees Act of 1998. With the strain of regional economic migrants removed from the asylum system (through the new SADC visas), these improvements would be possible.

Life at the Asylum Processing Centre

In general, it seems that asylum seekers will be ‘accommodated’ at the Asylum Processing Centre while their asylum claim is being considered. The White Paper explains that governmental departments and international organizations (UNHCR, Red Cross) will operate at the Processing Centre. Vulnerable asylum seekers will be provided with special services at the Processing Centre.

It seems that ‘low-risk’ asylum seekers can leave the Processing Centre (it is not clear what constitutes ‘low-risk’) into the care of organizations or community members. It is assumed that asylum-seekers who are granted refugee status will leave the Processing Centre. Asylum seekers will not have the automatic right to work. Their basic needs will be catered for in the processing centre. In exceptional cases, the right to work might be granted to certain asylum seekers.

As above mentioned, we are deeply worried by the move towards detention centres on the northern borders, which we fear will result in the detention of asylum seekers, which is contrary to their constitutional right to freedom of movement. We are deeply concerned that the Department of Home Affairs will struggle to run a Processing Centre in a remote area away from public scrutiny.7

We raised deep concerns around the changes to asylum seekers’ ability to work, as the Watchenuka court case confirmed asylum seekers’ right to work in South Africa, in that it is interwoven with one’s constitutional right to dignity. We advocate for the continuation of asylum seekers’ right to work in South Africa.