Cape Town - A Western Cape High Court judge has ordered the Department of Home Affairs to release a Venezuelan woman from a holding cell at the Cape Town International Airport and to allow her into the country pending her application for a judicial review of her immigration status.
The case before Judge Matthew Francis involved Claire Breukel, a South African citizen who is in a permanent life partnership with Elisa Serrano, a citizen of Venezuela.
Both women are based overseas and had intended to visit Cape Town to spend three months together with Breukel’s family over the festive season. They also planned to get married by entering into a civil union during their visit.
They travelled separately and Serrano, who arrived first, was to stay in South Africa until March 24. When she attempted to formally enter the country through immigration at the airport, Serrano was denied entry.
The reason provided was that she had a “manually extended passport”.
In their founding affidavit, Breukel and Serrano explained to the court that the Venezuelan government has for several years not issued new passports to replace expired passports.
Instead, in order to save costs, it renews passports by inserting an extension document into the expiring passport.
They said that before booking her flight to Cape Town, Serrano called the South African embassy in the US to ask whether the South African government would recognise her passport as valid, and the embassy said she was clear to enter South Africa and could do so as a tourist for 90 days.
Serrano was handed over to representatives of the airline who accompanied her to the inadmissible facility at the airport.
There she was kept in what she described in court papers as “a holding cell”, where she was the only woman in a facility housing men and she feared for her safety.
On December 25, Breukel arrived in South Africa and she and her attorney went to the airport to try to sort out the matter.
They lodged an urgent application in the high court to have Serrano released from custody, and be allowed into South Africa pending the Home Affairs minister’s decision on the issue.
The court granted the interim order, but the Home Affairs officials refused to budge, saying the order was unlawful and could not be implemented, forcing Breukel and the attorney to return to the judge with a contempt application which was heard at 11pm on Christmas Day.
Home Affairs also told the court that Serrano was not released immediately because the department was trying to appoint counsel to have the order set aside and to have the matter reconsidered.
Judge Francis ordered that pending the final determination of the Serrano’s application for judicial review, the department and the minister must permit her to enter and remain in South Africa, “subject to such reasonable terms and conditions, as may be prescribed” by the department.