Over the course of two months, May and June 2011, I was fortunate to do an internship with Sonke Gender Justice Network in Johannesburg. I was working within the Refugee Health and Rights unit, which helps migrants and refugees to gain access to services, challenges xenophobia, and promotes gender equality. The unit runs workshops, distributes Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials, and visits schools. One of the most challenging issues is raising awareness of the rights of refugees, both among refugees themselves as well as among service providers. While seeking asylum, refugees in South Africa are entitled to access the employment and housing market, while asylum-holders are additionally entitled to services like education and health care. Thus, the ability to seek asylum in the first place is of major importance.
My internship coincided with two events that were of wider significance for refugees. South Africa held Local Government Elections on the 18th of May 2011 and the outcome will have important consequences for service delivery as well as xenophobia faced by many refugees. Although the elections were very interesting to follow it is a second event, which passed by much more quietly, I have decided to raise in this blog post: the closure of the only Home Affairs office (or Refugee Centre) in Johannesburg in June 2011.
I first read about the Johannesburg Refugee Centre while I was still in Edinburgh in an article by Loren Landau in the Journal of Refugee Studies. It highlighted some of the issues asylum-seekers are facing in Johannesburg, such as long queues and abuse by security guards and police while waiting to apply. Many controversies appeared to be surrounding the Centre, causing a number of closures and re-locations. The article also noted that the Centre would be moved to Crown Mines, an area just outside the city centre, in the future.
When starting my internship, I found out that the Home Affairs office in Crown Mines was one of the places where the Refugee Health and Rights unit worked and distributed IEC materials. I was happy to find out that despite past difficulties, the office now seemed to have a stable location. The unit was based in the Home Affairs office twice a week, and in my second week I got to go along with them. After a quick crash-course in what to say and do, I headed out with the others, armed with pamphlets about HIV/AIDS, gender equality and refugee rights, as well as condoms. Although we arrived early in the morning, there was already a long cue outside the building. After passing through the metal detectors at the entrance, we entered two large rooms, filled with hundreds of people of all ages, most of them being from DRC, Somalia or Zimbabwe. Even though the multitude of people slightly overwhelmed me, my colleagues stated that it was a quiet day. It took us a long time to hand out the IEC material, and many people were keen to talk and ask questions. Overall, it was interesting to gain some insight into what is often the first service refugees approach, although the dire situation facing most of them was difficult to comprehend.
My initial relief that the Crown Mines were a stable location soon turned out premature. A week after my first visit a Johannesburg court ordered the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) to shut down the Refugee Centre. Complaints had been made by surrounding businesses, claiming that the many asylum-seekers travelling to the office had become a nuisance, and hindering their work. The DHA received much critique for not standing up for the rights of refugees, as well as for not making alternative plans for a re-location. However, despite criticism, the office closed on the 1st of June. All asylum-seekers now had to travel to the nearest Refugee Centre, located 70km away in Pretoria.
The decision came as a shock not only to the staff at Sonke, but also to several other organizations working with refugees, as well as to the refugees themselves. A round-trip to Pretoria is costly, and additionally implies the loss of at least one working-day. Furthermore, when refugee centres have been moved in the past this often resulted in the loss of files, making it even more difficult for refugees to apply for renewals of permits. It soon emerged that the Home Affairs officials in Pretoria were unable to cope with the additional number of refugees. Some people were forced to wait up to three days for their turn and had to sleep rough outside the office.
The Refugee Centre is a service that is of utmost importance to refugees, as it is required in order to gain access to other services. Furthermore, failure to obtain asylum seeker status can lead to arrest and deportation. This is clearly a very problematic issue, and although new Home Affairs offices are being planned, these are all going to be placed along South Africa’s borders with neighbouring countries. In contrast, Johannesburg – the city with the highest number of asylum-seekers in South Africa, the country with the highest rate of asylum-seekers in the world – now no longer has a Refugee Centre. In light of widespread xenophobia and the other challenges refugees are already facing, I will closely follow the progress of the Home Affairs office in Pretoria, and whether any alternative measures will be taken in order to improve the situation of refugees in Johannesburg.
Charlotte Steffansson, MSc Africa and International Development