Sunday Times

Not in our name, UN body tells SA


AID: Sudanese refugees queue for food in Uganda. South Africa wants the UN to give refugees shelter within its borders THE Department of Home Affairs has snubbed a UN request to amend misleading legislatio­n.

The Refugee Amendment Bill is on its way to the National Assembly after approval this week by parliament’s home affairs portfolio committee. It says asylum seekers may be offered shelter and assistance by the UN High Commission­er for Refugees pending the outcome of their applicatio­n for refugee status.

But the UNHCR claims it asked home affairs to remove all reference to the agency in the bill. Responding to Sunday Times queries, the UNHCR’s Markku Aikomus said it had made its position clear 18 months ago — to no avail.

“Currently, UNHCR provides social assistance in South Africa to the refugees and asylum seekers with critical specific needs through partners and in the form of food vouchers, nonfood items, sanitary materials, social grants, funeral assistance, as well as accommodat­ion depending on the individual cases.”

Whereas the bill emphasised methods of welfare support, UNHCR was more in favour of asylum seekers becoming self-sufficient, Aikomus said.

“In times when global forced displaceme­nt is the highest since World War 2, UNHCR is able to provide critical social assistance only to a very limited number of persons of concern.

“UNHCR acknowledg­es the challenges the Republic of South Africa is facing in asylum management due to the high number of asylum applicatio­ns. Neverthele­ss, UNHCR considers that the right to work is a fundamenta­l human right, integral to human dignity and self-respect, and that reliance on assistance is not conducive to selfsuffic­iency.”

Home affairs spokesman Mayihlome Tshwete said that to his knowledge UNHCR had yet to decide what form of assistance it would offer in South Africa. “There has been no formal position from their head office,” Tshwete said. “We are still in talks about what type or form their assistance would take.”

Confusion around UNHCR’s assistance comes as the government moves to tighten migration policy.

The Department of Home Affairs has proposed setting up “processing centres” at strategic border sites in the hope of speeding up adjudicati­on of asylum applicants.

The department says the asylum system is overwhelme­d by the number

We are still in talks about what form their assistance would take

of people streaming in from subSaharan Africa, particular­ly Zimbabwe, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a green paper discussion document it also proposed a possible low-skill work permit for potential migrants.

But civil society groups are critical of the plan because asylum seekers would be forced to live in camps for years.

Roni Amit, US-based former senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersr­and, described border processing centres as a recipe for disaster. “What it will do, and what is perhaps the goal, is to allow them to deport people more efficientl­y, while also seriously curtailing the ability of asylum seekers to access legal assistance or the courts.”

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