Aaron Motsoaledi. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Aaron Motsoaledi. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided R147m towards a four-year project to wipe out the backlog of more than 153,000 appeal applications against decisions by refugee officials.

This bottleneck has accumulated over many years dating back to the 2008 financial crisis and made worse during the Covid-19 pandemic as the Refugee Appeal Authority was not able to function at full capacity.

For asylum seekers the delay in finalising their appeals means that they remain in limbo with no legal status. 

The funding will be used to substantially increase the capacity of the Refugee Appeal Authority by 36 from three members as well as to invest in technology infrastructure to improve system efficiency and facilitate communication with asylum seekers. The department of home affairs will also scale up its capacity and provide administrative support.

Home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi and the UNHCR’s representative in SA, Leonard Zulu, signed the agreement on Monday in the presence of Southern Africa regional UNHCR director Valentin Tapsoba.

In his speech at the signing ceremony, Motsoaledi referred to a statement by former auditor-general Kimi Makwetu in February 2020 that it would take about 68 years to clear the appeals backlog without taking on new cases if nothing changed.

Motsoaledi noted that the number of refugee applications had sharply risen since the enactment of the Refugee Act in 1998, when there were 11,135 applications, to a manageable 53,361 in 2006 and then to an unmanageable 207,206 in 2008 and 223,324 in 2009, when the world was hit by the financial crisis. This overwhelmed the system.

He noted that in 2017 there were 36,000 applications for refugee status, 18,000 in 2018 and 25,000 in 2019, mostly citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), followed by Somalia, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. There are no statistics for 2020. According to the department of home affairs there are about 87,000 active refugees in SA.

He said that the government had tried to expedite the processing of refugee appeals. The law was amended so that it was no longer necessary for a quorum of three of the five members of the Refugee Appeal Authority to hear a case, but that one would suffice. Only complex cases require a quorum of three members.

Tapsoba said he was confident that the rollout of the backlog project would make “an immeasurable impact in the lives of thousands of asylum seekers. With the right documentation in hand, I believe the backlog project will not only restore their dignity and standing in SA but will help each one of them to become valuable members of society, socially and economically.”

Tapsoba said the UNHCR was on hand to provide all the expertise and support at its disposal to make a success of the refugee backlog elimination project.

Zulu noted that without the right documentation, asylum seekers were vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. He congratulated SA’s system of welcoming asylum seekers who were immediately able to access the education and health systems. He also praised the government for including refugees and asylum seekers in its Covid-19 response, providing them with social assistance grants, including them in the health system without discrimination and planning to include them in the vaccination rollout.

Refugee Appeal Authority chair Nigel Holmes said the processing of appeals had slowed down dramatically during the pandemic as face-to-face hearings had to be replaced by virtual ones. Also refugee reception centres had closed down.

To be granted refugee status in SA, an asylum seeker must come from a country at war; be the victim of political, religious or sexual orientation persecution; or be dependent on a person seeking asylum.

An asylum seeker entering the country is automatically given a five-day permit at the border post to reach one of the five refugee reception centres in the country where they will be given a three to six month permit so they can apply for refugee status. A refugee status determination office will accept an application, reject it as unfounded (which leads to the appeal process) or declare it to be manifestly unfounded, in which case it is referred to a standing committee on refugee affairs.

ensorl@businessday.co.za

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