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Johannesburg - For 10 years, Jean Paul Karekezi waited for his asylum permit.
The Rwandan-born man fled to South Africa during the genocide in his country.
The neighbours had reported his parents to government officials for failing to send Karekezi to a military training camp. One night, armed militiamen from the Hutu-led government came to their family homestead and threatened to kill him if he did not join the war.
He was just 17 at the time.
His mother organised for him to be smuggled to South Africa, where a traumatised Karekezi arrived in 2001 through the border at Musina.
Once smuggled into the country through “panya roads” – secret routes known only to smugglers – his main worry was finding a place to live.
He only worried about being legally in the country much later. Then began a frustrating journey that saw him hitting brick walls in a bid to apply for political asylum.
Equally frustrated was his friend and compatriot, Gabriel Hertis, who also hails from Rwanda.
When you’ve already jumped the border without following the Department of Home Affairs rules of application for permits, it is difficult to get permits, according to Hertis.
On its website, the department says asylum-seekers must report to a government official at their port of entry that they need asylum. An asylum transit permit will then be issued.
“The first you think about when you come in is finding other refugees in your situation. We’ve fled a country because of circumstances and we don’t have time to find out about the procedures of asylum,” said Hertis.
Karekezi was told by fellow migrants to go to the Jesuit Refugee Service in Joburg for assistance in applying for a Section 22 asylum permit.
After visiting the service, he went to Home Affairs in Braamfontein and was told to come back after one month for an interview.
At the interview, the refugee reception officer granted him a Section 22 permit and gave him a date for an interview with a refugee status determination officer (RSDO) for his refugee permit. This interview was scheduled only in five years.
For five years Karekezi went through the tedious process of renewing his Section 22 permit monthly, which he says was always dependent on the official’s mood.
When Karekezi finally went for his interview in 2006, the officer complained of a heavy workload and sent him away.
Karekezi was told that “there are thousands of applications I have to go through”.
When he went to Home Affairs to complain, he was informed that his file had been lost.
In 2007 he was stopped by police in Berea as he returned from work. The police asked to see his Section 22 permit, which he had left at home.
He says he was handcuffed, put into a van and detained overnight at Hillbrow police station.
In the morning he was taken to the Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp, along with several Zimbabweans. He was locked up for about five days.
“I had to call my brother and ask him to go to Home Affairs in Crown Mines (the office had moved from Braamfontein) to speak to the first RSDO I went to. Luckily the RSDO wrote the letter and faxed it to Lindela.”
The officials in Krugersdorp were not satisfied with the letter and wanted a copy of his permit from “a trusted source”.
Later, Karekezi was told to pay them R400 to be released.
During the 10 years, Karekezi has had to make countless visits to Home Affairs. He was sent from pillar to post, and sought help from various organisations. He even wrote a letter of complaint to then minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
In May this year, he also wrote a letter to current Minister Naledi Pandor.
One of his biggest disappointments with the asylum-seeking process was not being given the opportunity to study further. That was after his applications for further studies at Wits University and Unisa were rejected.
Unlike Karekezi, Hertis considered himself one of the lucky ones.
Hertis received his South African ID and passport in 2009, but he also waited 10 years to receive it.
But for Karekezi, the struggle continues.
In 2011, Karekezi was finally granted another interview with a second RSDO. But again, he didn’t receive his refugee status.
Waving a piece of paper in Karekezi’s face, the RSDO apparently rudely informed him that the UN had declared Rwanda a safe country.
Karekezi was told: “Your application has been rejected. You must go back home.”
On June 30, the UN ordered South Africa to send all Rwandan refugees back to their country. According to a new cessation clause, “fundamental and durable changes have taken place in their country of origin, and the circumstances that led to battles no longer exist”.
However, Karekezi said he feared returning home. “I know I’m going to get killed unless I join the trenches (the army).”
Karekezi and Hertis, who are both involved in Rwandan human rights activism, believe the political situation in Rwanda is far from peaceful.
Fast-tracking the process
Although an asylum-seeker permit allows someone to stay in South Africa, it doesn’t recognise the person as a refugee. It is merely proof that the person has applied for asylum or refugee status, says the Department of Home Affairs.
Speaking on World Refugee Day in Pretoria in June, Minister of Home Affairs Naledi Pandor said: “It is true that we do not grant refugee status easily. Show me a country that does. But we do take longer than we should in determining refugee status. We are reviewing our procedures and implementing a fast-track capacity to process applications.”
The comment came after she had said fellow Africans from other countries had played an important role in the achievement of democracy and freedom in South Africa.
The department was developing policies to provide effective and humane administrative assistance to genuine refugees, Pandor said.
Cadet News Agency