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‘Come back tomorrow’: Refugees battle for asylum in South Africa

‘We are tired, we don’t like this South Africa anymore’

PRETORIA: Therese Walu’s eyes welled up as she recalled the last time she shared dinner with her whole family, 19 years ago, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The next morning, soldiers raided her village of Mukakira, in the country’s northeast — where a civil war that killed millions raged between 1998-2003. She grabbed her youngest daughters and fled into the surrounding forest, not knowing whether the rest of the family survived.

With nothing but the clothes on her back, Walu started a perilous 10-year journey that would eventually take her more than 3,000 kilometers, to South Africa’s capital Pretoria. But like millions of displaced Africans, she reached a country boasting one of the world’s most progressive refugee policies but she only found herself knocking on closed doors. “The only thing they ever gave us is a (temporary) paper of asylum,” said Walu, who has been battling for refugee status since 2010.

Fed up, she joined hundreds of asylum-seekers on October 8 for a long-running sit-in protest in front of the offices of the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Pretoria. On Thursday the protesters forced their way into the UNHCR office grounds after being served with a court order evicting them from the street in front of the offices. A similar protest was quashed in Cape Town after demonstrators were forcefully evicted from the building last month.

High hopes

“We are tired, we don’t like this South Africa anymore,” said Walu, 41, who wants the UNHCR to help relocate her family. She told AFP the sit-in — sparked by a wave of xenophobic violence in September — was “the only chance” to protest against her situation. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that allows asylum-seekers to work, have access to healthcare and study while their applications are being processed.
That reputation helped attract more than a million asylum-seekers between 2007 and 2015, one of the world’s highest, according to the government. With high hopes to begin with, most have faced a lengthy, confusing and increasingly backlogged process. “When I first arrived in South Africa I thought ‘finally!’,” said another Congolese asylum-seeker Esther Kabinga, 46. After losing her husband in a plane crash and being gang-raped by soldiers, Kabinga left her home in the southeastern Katanga province in 2011, and walked into neighboring Zambia with her three small children. Kabinga then paid truck drivers to smuggle them to South Africa.

Stuck in limbo

She recalled having to leave home at 3.30 am to queue up for the processing of her application at the Home Affairs department. “They give you a number and you wait. At the end of the day they tell you to come back tomorrow, come back next week.” Like most asylum-seekers, both Kabinga and Walu’s initial applications were rejected, marking the start of a lengthy appeal process. “Currently there is a 99 percent (initial) rejection rate,” human rights lawyer Jessica Lawrence told AFP, adding that thousands were stuck in limbo.
The UNHCR has also voiced concern about the number of “pending cases”. Despite the backlog, South Africa has reduced the capacity of some of its refugee application offices. Human rights lawyer Sharon Elkambaram lamented the lack of “political will” to process applications. “The quality of the decision-making is shocking,” she added. South Africa processed more than 630,000 applications over the past decade, less than 10 percent of which were granted refugee status. Home Affairs spokesman Siya Qoza told AFP the majority were “not genuine cases” that were “clogging the system” by lodging appeals. “Why would we need to increase the capacity when most of the world is stable?” he asked. “You would do that if the entire world was at war.”

‘Just a loser’

Walu and Kabinga have been living with temporary asylum permits for almost a decade. That paper needs to be renewed every three to six months — a process that can take up to three weeks. Asylum-seekers also say the document brands them as foreigners, making them vulnerable to police bribes and discrimination. Walu claims her daughters were given a different high school diploma from a normal refugee because of their asylum-seeking status, and have since been refused access to university.
“Schools are instructed not to register foreign nationals or anyone who doesn’t have a (South African) bar-coded ID,” said Elkambaram. “Same with hospitals,” she added. Last month, Johannesburg’s High Court granted a public hospital the right to deny dialysis treatment to an Ethiopian asylum-seeker on the basis that she was not a South African citizen.
Alem Ereselo, 36, feared persecution in Ethiopia after being involved with a once-banned political group as a student. She fled to South Africa in 2010 and developed kidney failure in January. “I feel shame for South Africa,” said Ereselo, almost too frail to speak after spending 14 consecutive days without treatment. “After 10 years, being sick shows me that (as an asylum-seeker) you are just a loser.” – AFP

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