Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)

Refugee officials have to process 60 000 cases a year


THERE are only five Home Affairs officials on South Africa’s Refugee Appeal Board. And it’s their job to process an average 60 000 cases a year, Department of Home Affairs figures show.

This equates to more than 160 reviews a day.

Exacerbati­ng the situation, which has resulted in an enormous backlog running to many years in some cases, is that for things to improve, the applicable legislatio­n must be amended. That’s according to department spokesman Mayihlome Tshwete, speaking after Weekend Argus’s story last Saturday about a Syrian family who were refused asylum.

This came after an official decided Damascus, where they lived in Syria, is safe and humanitari­an aid was therefore not warranted.

The Banian family took their case to the Refugee Appeal Board, and they have been given asylum- seeker per- mits while they wait for a date for the appeal.

However, father Omar Banian is not impressed because he said his family feels imprisoned in a foreign country without documents that recognise them as refugees.

They were also shocked at the finding by the refugee status determinat­ion officer that Damascus is safe, saying there was nothing left of their home after it was bombed.

Banian feared death constantly as he had to pass through six security checkpoint­s daily on his way to work, which were manned by young, trigger-happy military officials. But Tshwete was adamant this week their asylum-seeker permit gave them full recognitio­n and protection in South Africa. He would not comment on the merits of the applicatio­n.

The only disadvanta­ge, he said, was they had to travel to the Refugee Reception Centre in Pretoria, where they lodged their applicatio­n, to have their permits extended.

Tshwete said there was nothing stopping the family from applying to have their files transferre­d to Cape Town on the basis of exceptiona­l circumstan­ces, if such circumstan­ces existed.

On the appeal process, he said it could take up to a year for an appeal to be heard, which means the Banians probably have at least one more trip to make to Pretoria.

Immigratio­n lawyer June Luna described this timeframe as “very optimistic”.

In her experience, she said, appeals could take years to be finalised. “We’ve never had one come back in a year.” The appeal could also be refused, which meant an expensive court review would be necessary. Luna agreed the department was “swamped” and had capacity issues.

But on the Banian case, she said it was very clear Syria was in the midst of a civil war and was a dangerous place in which to live.

The refugee determinat­ion officer in their case had clearly erred, something which was not surprising considerin­g they were all overworked and some lacked training.

The appeal board was created in the early 1990s in terms of the Refugees Act. At that time, Tshwete said, only about 100 to 300 people sought asylum here annually.

Although those numbers had spiralled, the department’s capacity to deal with applicatio­ns was almost unchanged.

In 2013, 70 000 asylum seekers entered South Africa and 71 000 next year. Last year there were 62 000 new asylum applicatio­ns.

“It’s a highly burdened system,” Tshwete said, explaining that most cases were economic migrants rather than people seeking asylum.

Statistics show less than 5 percent of newcomer applicatio­ns for asylum are successful and the majority of those which are refused go on appeal.

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