South Africa: Treatment of refugees by authorities and society; including protection available from common criminality and access to social services (2014-January 2015)
The UN indicates that South Africa acceded to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees on 12 January 1996 and as of 13 January 2015 it was still a signatory state (UN 13 Jan. 2015). Sources indicate that South Africa receives the highest number of asylum applications in the world, mostly from African countries (Cape Times 19 Nov. 2014; Freedom House 2014). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicates that, as of November 2014, there were about 65,000 recognized refugees in South Africa and 230,000 asylum-seekers were living in the country at the end of 2013 (UN Nov. 2014, 2). The US Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013 for South Africa indicates that in 2014, there were approximately 83,000 recognized refugees and 400,000 asylum seekers in the country (27 Feb. 2014, 18). According to the Freedom House report Freedom in the World 2014, South Africa accepts approximately 15 percent of the claims for refugee protection that it receives (2014). UNHCR's Global Appeal 2015 Update for South Africa indicates that the country's asylum system is "overwhelmed," with a backlog that affects the quality and efficiency of refugee determination procedures (Nov. 2014, 1). Country Reports 2013 similarly notes the existence of "large case backlogs" as well as "susceptibility to corruption and abuse" in refugee determination procedures (US 27 Feb. 2014, 18).
2. Treatment by Authorities
In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a representative from the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town (SCCT), an organization that "offers development and welfare programmes to the immigrant and local communities of Cape Town," (SCCT n.d.) , indicated that discrimination against foreigners [including recognized and non-recognized refugees] is "institutionalized" in South Africa and "we often receive reports of hate speech or harassment against foreigners by government officials" (13 Jan. 2015). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a representative from the Refugee Ministries Centre (RMC), an organization that "promote[s] fair access to documentation for refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa" and monitors service delivery at Refugee Reception Offices (RMC n.d.), also indicated that government officials have "been quoted uttering xenophobic statements on refugees and how unwelcome they are in [South Africa]" (13 Jan. 2015). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a Senior Researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who is a legal researcher in the areas of asylum, refugee law, and legal detention, indicated that "[d]espite strong laws, refugees and asylum seekers suffer from rights violations by both government and citizens. There are high levels of xenophobia and foreign-owned businesses are often targeted" (Senior Researcher 16 Jan. 2015).
2.1 Immigration Authorities
Amnesty International (AI)'s Annual Report 2013 for South Africa indicates that "[u]nlawful [and] prolonged detentions of undocumented migrants as well as individuals in need of international protection remained a concern" during 2012 (2013). Country Reports 2013 indicates that "numerous cases of arbitrary arrest" of refugees, asylum seekers, and foreign workers, even those with documentation, occurred during 2013 (US 27 Feb. 2014, 11). The same source indicates that in some cases, documented migrants and asylum seekers were "threatened with indefinite detention and bureaucratic hurdles unless they paid bribes to ensure quick adjudication of their cases" (ibid.). The RMC representative similarly indicated that immigration officials can refuse to assist refugees and asylum seekers if they refuse to pay solicited bribes (13 Jan. 2015). The SCCT representative indicated that "there are numerous reports of the need to pay simply to get into the door at the [Refugee] Reception Offices at Cape Town and Pretoria, [and] further bribes are asked for subsequent services" (13 Jan. 2015). Country Reports 2013 further indicates that the Department of Home Affairs detained "unaccompanied minors for immigration violations," even though the law prohibits this (US 27 Feb. 2014, 12).
The SCCT representative indicated that services provided by the Department of Home Affairs to refugees and asylum seekers are "restricted and highly inefficient" (13 Jan. 2015). The Senior Researcher similarly indicated that "[a]sylum seekers and refugees do not receive adequate services at the refugee reception offices" (16 Jan. 2015). Sources indicate that the government has closed three Refugee Reception Offices since 2011 to move asylum-processing services to South African borders (US 27 Feb. 2014, 18-19; Human Rights Watch 2014, 173), which has limited asylum seekers' access to work permits, shelter, social assistance, and to the asylum procedure itself (ibid.). Additional information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response. Sources report that, despite a 20 June 2013 order by the Eastern Cape High Court to the government to reopen the Port Elizabeth reception center, the office remained closed (ibid.; US 27 Feb. 2014, 18-19).
Country Reports 2013 indicates that, on 27 May 2013, a crowd of approximately 1,000 refugees rushed to queue for appointments at the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office, which is designed to accommodate 150 people (ibid., 19). Security staff at the office, who were "unable to process the applications," turned a fire hose on more than 100 of the 1,000 refugees who were waiting in line (ibid.). The same source indicates that, on 30 May 2013, the police fired rubber bullets at refugees who were waiting in line at the same Refugee Reception Office after they started to throw stones at the office's staff and guards (ibid.). There were reports that, during that incident, security staff also used "pepper spray, stun grenades, and warning shots to control the crowds" (ibid.).
The RMC representative referred to the environment for refugees in South Africa as "hostile," as most are denied refugee protection "no matter how strong their cases of persecution are" (RMC 13 Jan. 2015). The same source indicated that refugees and asylum seekers do not have the assurance of obtaining a renewal or extension of their refugee permit whenever it expires, and they have to have their applications processed in government offices that are "always overcrowded and impossible to ... access" (ibid.). Similarly, the SCCT representative indicated that access to the only three offices nationwide dealing with refugee documentation is "a big issue" (SCCT13 Jan. 2015). He added that the refugee determination process is "slow and cumbersome" and most applicants are kept "in the dark" regarding the status of their applications and "what is expected of them" (ibid.). The same source stated that officials at the Department of Home Affairs are "not well trained, nor is the privacy and dignity of applicants respected" (ibid.). The Senior Researcher indicated that "[t]he status determination procedure is highly problematic. Decisions are of poor quality and in no way reflect the protection needs of an asylum seeker. They are very generic, cut and pasted decisions that fail to engage with the individual claim" (16 Jan. 2015).
2.2 Immigration Detention Centres
Business Day, a national daily newspaper based in Johannesburg that covers "all major national and international news" (Business Day 12 Nov. 2014), reports on South Africa's "frequently controversial" handling of refugee issues, which includes "the alleged illegal detention of migrants at the infamous Lindela repatriation camp and unsanitary conditions at Cape Town's refugee centre" (Business Day 12 Nov. 2014). Freedom House reports that conditions at migrant detention centres are "poor, and deportees are subject to physical and sexual abuse by police and immigration officers" (2014). Country Reports 2013 indicates that, according to Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), an NGO that advocates for human rights and carries out public interest litigation in South Africa (LHR n.d.),
immigrants in detention at the Lindela Repatriation Centre, the country's largest detention facility for undocumented immigrants, were subject to the following abuses: physical and verbal abuse, corruption and bribery, insufficient food, lack of reading and writing materials, lack of access to recreational facilities or telephones, lack of access to and poor quality of medical care, indefinite detention without judicial review, detention of legally registered asylum seekers, and lack of procedural safeguards such as legal guidelines governing long-term detention. (US 27 Feb. 2014, 7)
Country Reports 2013 also indicates that, on the other hand, "[s]everal refugee and migration advocacy groups noted ... that conditions in Lindela were generally acceptable and that the government was generally responsive when problems were identified" (ibid.).
According to the RMC representative, "very few refugees would even call the police under any form of threat," because the police "use the opportunity to exploit them or arrest them for being undocumented, even for some who have legal documentation already" (13 Jan. 2015). The SCCT representative indicated that "[c]rime against foreigners is common and opportunistic, since they are seen as soft targets" (13 Jan. 2015).
The RMC representative indicated that there are reports of police looting businesses run by refugees and incidents of beatings (13 Jan. 2015). AI reports that, as part of "operation 'Hard Stick'," the police in the province of Limpopo "forcibly closed at least 600 small businesses" run by refugees and asylum seekers (AI 2013). AI also reports that raids were "indiscriminate" and carried out without warning, and that some of the refugees and asylum seekers "were subjected to xenophobic verbal abuse, detention and charged or fined for running their businesses" (ibid.). Country Reports 2013 indicates that, according to a brigadier from the South African Police Service, "the raids did not target foreigners, but rather unlicensed shop owners" even though he could not name any non-foreign shop targeted during the raid (27 Feb. 2014, 20).
3. Treatment by Society
AI indicates that "numerous incidents of looting and destruction of shops and displacement of recognized refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants were documented in most of the nine provinces" (2013). Human Rights Watch indicates that between May and June 2013, more than 60 shops owned by refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants were "forced to close following violent looting" and "xenophobic attacks" by community members in the areas of Orange Farm and Diepsloot in the province of Gauteng (Human Rights Watch 2014, 169). The same source reports that the attacks displaced "hundreds" of people, and that 21 people were arrested and charged with "public violence" (ibid.). AI reports that, in June 2013, almost 700 mainly Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers were displaced after the "large-scale property destruction" and looting of their shops in the province of Free State (2013). According to Human Rights Watch, between June and September 2013, shops owned by Somali nationals in Port Elizabeth were also looted and burnt (Human Rights Watch 2014, 169). The same source reports that approximately 100 people were arrested in connection with these attacks (ibid.). AI also reports that in September 2013, 30 "displaced Ethiopians" were forced to flee a house that was providing them with shelter after it was petrol-bombed (2013). Human Rights Watch indicates that government officials at both central and local levels have denied that violence against foreign nationals is motivated by "xenophobia or other forms of intolerance" (2014, 169).
A news report by AI indicates that Somali migrants in Mamelodi, a township northeast of Pretoria, were subjected to violent attacks for six days starting on 7 June 2014 (AI 12 June 2014). The same source quotes AI's Regional Director for Southern Africa as saying that the attacks resulted in "'one refugee dead, ten others injured and at least 76 shops burnt or looted'" (ibid.). The Regional Director also stated that, "'[d]espite repeated calls, the police were slow to respond and failed to adequately deploy patrols to stop the escalation of violence'" (ibid.).
Sources report that between 400 and 500 refugees and asylum seekers were evicted from the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg at the end of December 2014 (SABC News 31 Dec. 2014; New Zimbabwe 30 Dec. 2014), the majority of whom are Zimbabweans (ibid.). Sources report that, for over a decade, the church provided shelter to refugees and homeless people (AP 31 Dec. 2014; New Zimbabwe 30 Dec. 2014) who were victims of "recurrent xenophobic attacks" (ibid.). The Associated Press (AP) reports that, according to church officials, "they can no longer afford the wear and tear on the building or the water electricity bills incurred by the refugees" (31 Dec. 2014). New Zimbabwe, a weekly newspaper published in the UK, reports that the eviction was carried out by the property's owners who "have long insisted that the building must return to its original purpose of being a place of worship as opposed to providing shelter to people who have paid back the church's hospitality through vandalising the structure" (30 Dec. 2014).
4. Access to Services
Chapter 5 of the Refugees Act, 1998 and its 2008 and 2011 amendments outlines the rights of refugees in South Africa (South Africa 1998; ibid. 2008; ibid. 2011). Copies of the Refugees Act, 1998 and its amendments are attached to this Response (Attachments 1,2 and 3).
Country Reports 2013 indicates that "although the law provides for access to basic services including education for refugee children, and access to police and courts," it also reports that, according to NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, "health-care facilities and law enforcement personnel discriminated against asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees" (US 27 Feb. 2014, 20).
According to the SCCT representative,
[o]nly recognized refugees are eligible to access social grants through the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA). Refugees qualify for all social grants, except for the war veteran grant. This includes the child support grant, care dependency grant, the foster child grant, the disability grant and the old age grant. (13 Jan. 2015)
The Senior Researcher also indicated that refugees "may apply for disability, foster child, and care dependency grants" (16 Jan. 2015).
According to the RMC representative, the government recognizes "on paper" that "refugees are entitled to access health care, education and social assistance," but "it also ends there (on paper)" (RMC 13 Jan. 2015). The same source adds that government officials "in hospitals, social services and education departments who are supposed to provide the services verbally and physically abuse refugees and deny them access" to these services (ibid.).
The UNHCR indicates that
[t]he main needs of refugees remain access to: documentation; a fair and functioning asylum system; basic social services, provided in national legislation and policy; occasional emergency assistance for the most vulnerable, including shelter and food; and social cohesion programmes. (UN Nov. 2014, 2)
4.1 Health Care
Sources indicate that asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to the same basic health services as South African citizens (SCCT 13 Jan. 2015; UN 31 Oct. 2014; Daily Maverick 16 Oct. 2014). Country Reports 2013 indicates that "[a]ccess to critical care was generally available, but access for chronic illnesses and preventive care operated on a queue system. Refugees and migrants received services after South African citizens, which often resulted in delayed services" (US 27 Feb. 2014, 20).
Sources indicate that public health care facilities in South Africa function according to a "means-based payment system" where persons earning below a determined income threshold do not have to pay fees to access health care (Daily Maverick 16 Oct. 2014; SCCT 13 Jan. 2015). Sources report that refugees and asylum seekers are subjected to the same financial means test as other South Africans (ibid.; UN 31 Oct. 2014). Sources indicate that, even though undocumented migrants may not be refused emergency medical treatment (ibid.; SCCT 13 Jan. 2015), they may be held liable to pay maximum fees for medical treatment (ibid.).
The United Nations' Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reports that nurses at the South Rand Hospital in Johannesburg refused to admit an 18 year old woman after she overdosed on pills (UN 31 Oct. 2014). According to the mother of the woman, both of whom are asylum seekers, she was pointed to a sign that indicated that "non-South Africans" must pay 5,000 rands, or US$457, up front (ibid.). She had to take her daughter to another hospital where she received treatment (ibid.). Daily Maverick, an online newspaper based in South Africa, reports that a recognized refugee from Ethiopia who suffered a "serious internal head wound" after falling during an epileptic event, was required to pay 5,000 rands at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg in order to receive treatment (Daily Maverick 16 Oct. 2014). The article also reports that, according to a public relations' officer at the hospital, "'[r]efugees and asylum seekers receive treatment free on presentation of documentation. Where there is no documentation, emergency treatment is not denied'" (ibid.).
The SCCT representative also indicated that for some medical procedures where there is a lack of resources such as dialysis, priority is given to South African citizens (SCCT 13 Jan. 2015). The South African National Health Act indicates that "[a]n organ may not be transplanted into a person who is not a South African citizen or a permanent resident of the Republic without the Minister's authorisation in writing" (South Africa 2004, Sec. 61(3)).
The SCCT representative stated that children who are documented refugees or asylum seekers are entitled to the same basic primary education as South African children; this education "must be made available to all children between the ages 7 - 15" (SCCT 13 Jan. 2015). He added that, "[i]n general, children are able to access basic education and are not turned away on grounds of their status as asylum seekers or refugees" (ibid.). In contrast, without providing details, the Senior Researcher indicated that refugees and asylum seekers "struggle" to register their children at schools (Senior Researcher 16 Jan. 2015). Further information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.
4.3 Financial Services
Sources report that refugees and asylum seekers have problems opening bank accounts (ibid.; ARESTA 2 June 2014). According to the Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training & Advocacy (ARESTA), a non-profit organization based in Cape Town that provides training to refugees and asylum seekers (ARESTA n.d.), many refugees and asylum seekers report being turned away by banks when trying to open an account (ibid. 2 June 2014). According to the same source, banks assert that refugees and asylum seekers "pose too much of a risk in terms of money laundering and organized crime to accept an asylum seeker or refugee permit as identification" (ibid.). The same source further reports that many banks refuse to accept these documents "based on their purported view that these documents are less official and therefore less trustworthy than the identity documents possessed by South African citizens" (ibid.). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.
This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.
 The SCCT was founded by the Scalabrini Fathers, an order founded in 1887 by the Bishop of Piacenza, John Baptist Scalabrini (SCCT n.d.). The Scalabrini Congregation runs centres in 24 nations that "study the movement of populations around the world, publish peer reviewed journals and magazines and conduct radio and television programs for migrants" (ibid.).
Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training & Advocacy (ARESTA). 2 June 2014. Fred Bidandi. "Refugee Rights and Financial Institutions in South Africa." <http://www.aresta.org.za/refugee-rights-and-financial-institutions-in-south-africa> [Accessed 13 Jan. 2015]
_____. N.d. "Welcome to ARESTA." <http://www.aresta.org.za/> [Accessed 13 Jan. 2015]
Amnesty International (AI). 12 June 2014. "South Africa: Government and Police Failing to Protect Somali Refugees from Deadly Attacks." <http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/south-africa-government-and-police-failing-protect-somali-refugees-deadly-attacks-2014-06-12> [Accessed 13 Jan. 2015]
_____. 2013. "South Africa." Annual Report 2013: The State of the World's Human Rights. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/south-africa/report-2013> [Accessed 13 Jan. 2015]
Associated Press (AP). 31 December 2014. Lynsey Chutel. "South African Church to Evict Hundreds of Refugees." (Factiva)
Business Day. 12 November 2014. "SA a Top Destination for Asylum Seekers." <http://www.bdlive.co.za/national/2014/11/12/sa-a-top-destination-for-asylum-seekers> [Accessed 21 Jan. 2015]
_____. N.d. "About Us." <http://www.bdlive.co.za/aboutus/> [Accessed 21 Jan. 2015]
Cape Times. 19 November 2014. Lisa Isaacs. "SA to Continue with Liberal Refugee Policy." (Factiva)
Daily Maverick. 16 October 2014. Andrea Teagle. "Refugees: Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire of South Africa's Healthcare System." <http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-10-16-refugees-out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire-of-south-africas-healthcare-system/#.VL0lpUfF9ic> [Accessed 31 Dec. 2014]
Freedom House. 2014. "South Africa." Freedom in the World 2014. <https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2014/south-africa-0#.VLma-ivF9ic> [Accessed 31 Dec. 2014]
Human Rights Watch. 2014. "South Africa." World Report 2014: Events of 2013. <http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/wr2014_web_0.pdf> [Accessed 13 Jan. 2015]
Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR). N.d. "Lawyers for Human Rights." <http://www.lhr.org.za/> [Accessed 16 Jan. 2015]
New Zimbabwe. 30 December 2014. "South Africa: 400 Zimbabweans to Be Evicted from Johannesburg Sanctuary." <http://allafrica.com/stories/201412310199.html> [Accessed 31 Dec. 2014]
Refugee Ministries Centre (RMC). 13 January 2015. Correspondence from a representative to the research Directorate.
_____. N.d. "Home." <http://www.refugeeministriescentre.org.za/home.html> [Accessed 14 Jan. 2015]
SABC News. 31 December 2014. "Methodist Church Refugees Remain Steadfast." <http://www.sabc.co.za/news/a/653cba0046c3a6d7b0c3b42edd97c4cd/Methodist-church-refugees-remain-steadfast-20143112> [Accessed 31 Dec. 2014]
Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town (SCCT). 13 January 2015. Correspondence from a representative to the Research Directorate.
_____. N.d. "Who We Are." <http://www.scalabrini.org.za/project/who-we-are/> [Accessed 19 Jan. 2015]
Senior Researcher, African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand. 16 January 2015. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.
South Africa. 2011. Refugees Amendment Act, 2011. Act No. 12 of 2011. <http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/a12_2011_0.pdf> [Accessed 12 Jan. 2015]
_____. 2008. Refugees Amendment Act, 2008. Act No. 33 of 2008. <http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/31643_1274.pdf> [Accessed 12 Jan. 2015]
_____. 2004. National Health Act, 2004. Act No. 61 of 2003. <http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/a61-03.pdf> [Accessed 20 Jan. 2015]
_____. 1998. Refugees Act, 1998. Act 130 of 1998. <http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/a130-98_0.pdf> [Accessed 12 Jan. 2015]
South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). 31 December 2014. Ditaba Tsotetsi and Jamaine Krige. "Methodist Church Refugees Remain Steadfast." <http://www.sabc.co.za/news/a/653cba0046c3a6d7b0c3b42edd97c4cd/Methodist-church-refugees-remain-steadfast-20143112> [Accessed 31 Dec. 2014]
United Nations (UN). 13 January 2015. Office of Legal Affairs, Treaty Section. "Chapter V: Refugees and Stateless Persons." Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Treaty Collection. <https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetailsII.aspx?&src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=V~2&chapter=5&Temp=mtdsg2&lang=en> [Accessed 13 Jan. 2015]
_____. November 2014. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "South Africa." Global Appeal 2015 Update. <http://www.unhcr.org/5461e604b.html> [Accessed 13 Jan. 2015]
_____. 31 October 2014. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). Kristy Siegfried. "South Africa's Health System Shuns Asylum Seekers." <http://www.irinnews.org/report/100776/south-africa-s-health-system-shuns-asylum-seekers> [Accessed 31 Dec. 2014]
United States (US). 27 February 2014. Department of State. "South Africa." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013. <http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/220371.pdf> [Accessed 30 Dec. 2014]
Additional Sources Consulted
Oral sources: The following organizations were unable to provide information within the time constraints of this Response: International Detention Coalition; Lawyers for Human Rights; Messina Legal Advice Office; ProBono.Org.
The following individuals and organizations were unable to provide information for this Response: Adonis Musati Project; Black Sash; University of Stellenbosch - Faculty of law.
Attempts to contact individuals and representatives of the following organizations were unsuccessful within the time constraints of this Response: Centre for Conflict Resolution; Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa; Legal Resource Centre, London School of Economics; Refugee Children's Project.
Internet sites, including: Africa Check; AllAfrica; Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation; BDLive; Commonwealth and Comparative Politics; ecoi.net; Mail & Guardian; News24; South Africa – Department of Home Affairs, Independent Police Investigative Directorate, Police Service; UK – Home Office; UN – Refworld, ReliefWeb; US – USAID.
1. South Africa. 1998. Refugees Act, 1998. Act 130 of 1998. <http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/a130-98_0.pdf> [Accessed 12 Jan. 2015]
2. South Africa. 2008. Refugees Amendment Act, 2008. Act No. 33 of 2008. <http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/31643_1274.pdf> [Accessed 12 Jan. 2015]
3. South Africa. 2011. Refugees Amendment Act, 2011. Act No. 12 of 2011. <http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/a12_2011_0.pdf> [Accessed 12 Jan. 2015]