Daily Dispatch

Judge calls for PE refugee office to be reopened

- By ADRIENNE CARLISLE

HOME Affairs was this week ordered by the Grahamstow­n High Court to reopen the province’s only Refugee Reception Office after it had summarily and unlawfully closed it late last year.

Grahamstow­n High Court Judge Jeremy Pickering yesterday dismissed the Department of Home Affairs’ appeal against his earlier judgment in February in terms of which he ordered the department to “forthwith” reopen the office in Port Elizabeth.

It was the word “forthwith” rankled with Home Affairs.

While the department admitted it had acted unlawfully in closing the office without first consulting the parliament­ary Standing Committee on Refugee Affairs, it said it would be impossible to reopen it “forthwith” as

that ordered by Judge Pickering.

It claimed the process of securing suitable alternativ­e premises for the reception office promised to be a “protracted, difficult, if not impossible task”.

But Pickering said it was clear from the context of the judgment that “forthwith” did not mean “immediatel­y”.

He said the legal definition of the word meaning “as soon as is reasonably possible” applied.

It was “absurd” to suggest that the order meant the office should be open and functional immediatel­y upon the judgment being delivered, said Pickering.

He dismissed appeal.

At the same time, he granted an applicatio­n by the Eastern Cape chapter of the Somali Associatio­n of South Africa (Sasa) and the Project for

the

department’s Conflict Resolution and Developmen­t (PCRD) that pending any further appeals the department be obliged to reopen the Port Elizabeth office.

There are only five refugee reception offices, including the Port Elizabeth office, around the country that provide the administra­tive machinery to enable new applicants to apply for asylum in South Africa.

Pickering said while it might prove difficult for home affairs to secure suitable alternativ­e premises it was “stretching the bounds of credulity too far to suggest it might be ‘impossible’ to do so in a city the size of Port Elizabeth”.

“Apart from that, there are a number of interim measures which could be put in place while permanent premises are being secured.”

He said almost 12 weeks had passed since he had delivered judgment in February but Home Affairs had given no indication as to what steps, if any, it had taken in an attempt to comply with the order.

He said if Home Affairs petitioned the president of the Supreme Court of Appeal for such leave, as it indicated it would, it could take months for the matter to be finalised, causing asylum seekers to suffer clear prejudice.

The PE office is a busy one and between May 2010 and March 2011 alone it provided assistance to 22 000 people.

However, businesses near the premises in Sidon Street, North End, complained of the “nuisance” the busy office created and Home Affairs was informed by the landlord the lease would not be renewed when it expired last year.

Instead of finding new premises, the director-general decided to permanentl­y close the office from November last year.

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