MORE than a million asylum seekers in South Africa, the highest number in the world, were waiting for their applications to be processed at the end of last year.
Human rights groups say that at the current rate the country is taking to work through the list of refugee appeals, it would take more than 20 years to wipe out this backlog.
As the world marked Refugee Day yesterday, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released its 2015 report, which stated that South Africa had 1 096 100 pending asylum claims.
Germany was next with 420 600 applications, followed by the US with 286 200.
The report, titled Global Trends 2015, pointed out that the number of asylum seekers had been estimated at 1 057 600 in 2014.
It attributed the increase to a change in methodology, due to a historical under-reporting of the population.
Other countries with more than 100 000 pending asylum claims included Turkey with 212 400 and Sweden with 157 000.
Although the number of new applications last year was 62 200, the statistical adjustment meant that South Africa housed more asylum seekers than any other country last year, the report found.
“An adjustment to 2014 end-of-year figures, in particular, for the number of asylum applications pending on appeal and review has resulted in a substantially higher figure for numbers of asylum seekers reported in South Africa for 2015,” the report said.
“It should be noted that the current legal framework in South Africa does not enable the withdrawal, whether explicit or implicit, of asylum applications lodged.”
About 3.2 million people globally were waiting for decisions on their asylum claims by the end of last year.
Despite improved statistical reporting on pending asylum applications, the correct number of undecided asylum cases was unknown as some countries did not report the information.
Southern African Litigation Centre director Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh said while there had not been a sudden spike in the numbers of asylum seekers, the statistics appeared alarming due to a historical under-reporting of the numbers.
UNHCR regional officer Tina Ghelli said the refugee agency was working with the South African government on a three-year plan to resolve the backlog.
“What is a concern and needs to be addressed is the speed at which the refugee appeals process operates.
“At the current rate, the backlog will require 20 or more years to be resolved. This is untenable and deeply impacts on refugees’ ability to integrate and to access much-needed services, and move forward with their lives,” Ramjathan-Keogh said.
Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town’s advocacy officer, Corey Johnson, said there were cases of asylum seekers having waited 10 years for a final decision.
“There has been a focus on trying to reduce the number of applications, and often individuals who have legitimate refugee claims are routinely rejected in their refugee status determination interviews, and then must lodge appeals.
“The Refugee Appeal Board has a large backlog and that brings more delays,” he said.
Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa director Roshana Dadoo said: “The problem is that people wait for years as asylum seekers before receiving a refugee status determination interview at which their claim is either accepted – and full refugee status is granted – or rejected.
“Also, the status determination process is very flawed.”
Democratic Republic of Congo national Parice Maseka said: “I left my country because of security reasons. It is is very difficult to just get asylum papers; we suffer a lot.
“I have to go to Pretoria every month to renew my papers. They keep on extending them by one month.”
Home Affairs Department spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete had not responded to enquiries before deadline.