'New reception office too risky for refugees'

By Francis Hweshe and Luleka Damane

A legal expert from the UCT Law Clinic has raised serious safety concerns over the decision by the Department of Home Affairs to ask refugees to travel to Nyanga to apply for asylum papers.

The department announced on Thursday that, as from next week, asylum seekers from southern Africa would have to go to its Nyanga office for their documentation.

It said its Barrack Street office in the city centre would now cater for asylum seekers from the rest of Africa.

"We are completely disillusioned," said Fatima Khan, senior attorney of the Refugee Rights Project at UCT.

Given that refugees would have to travel by taxi to Nyanga, their lives would be in danger as the "Nyanga taxi rank was extremely volatile".

She said that last month, in light of the recent xenophobic attacks, her office had written a letter to Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula complaining about the Nyanga office. She has yet to receive a response.

The letter read: "In terms of prevailing legislation, in particular the provisions of the Refugee Act 130 of 1998, our clients are obliged to either formally apply for the renewal of their refugee and asylum seeker permits or to attend appeal hearings in relation to applications previously lodged by them.

"To this end, our clients are required to present themselves in person at the refugee reception office for the Western Cape which is situated in the local region of Nyanga.

"According to our clients, Nyanga is one of the areas that have been plagued by … xenophobic violence … In the light thereof, our clients have expressed strong reservations about entering the general vicinity of Nyanga or attending the reception office out of concern for their safety and security.

"We are of the view that the concerns of our clients are indeed justified and that a failure to pay due regard thereto may jeopardise their safety and security and consequently give rise to drastic infringements of their rights."

The letter requested Mapisa-Nqakula to establish a temporary refugee reception office at an alternative venue where safety and security of refugees would be guaranteed.

"We don't understand why they (Home Affairs) keep moving us, now they are taking us further … to Nyanga," said John Khanzva from Zimbabwe.

Another Zimbabwean, Sharick Dube, said it was expensive to go to Nyanga.

Braam Hanekom, chairman of refugee lobby group People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (Passop), lashed out at Home Affairs on Thursday.

He said for the department to say all asylum seekers from southern Africa had to go to Nyanga was an indirect way of saying all Zimbabweans fleeing their troubled country must risk their lives in Nyanga, the country's murder capital.

"If the department does not change its position, we will take the legal route," he said.

A Cape Argus team who visited the Nyanga office on Thursday was met by hostile staff who did not want the media "around our clients".

Scores of refugees were milling around outside the premises after they were turned away for being late.

Those who had made it inside for the renewal of their asylum papers and others applying for the first time said: "Everything was happening in slow motion."

The Nyanga office has, since earlier this year, been used to serve asylum seekers who want to renew their papers.

sign up