THE scenes outside Customs House over the last few days are a source of shame to our city and our country.
Refugees are being pushed and shoved by police and security guards daily as they try to get inside the Department of Home Affairs building to renew expired documents. Some have queued for days, sleeping outside through the winter nights; some, like Paul Kmie of Bangladesh, for weeks.
In some cases police have used pepper-spray and apparently also tear gas to control the crowds.
South Africa still gets the highest annual number of asylum applications of any country in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
By the end of 2011, some 220 000 asylum-seekers, mainly from Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Somalia and Zimbabwe were registered in South Africa and there were 106 904 applications in 2011.
Partly, this is an accident of geography: most of the refugees and asylum seekers are from neighbouring countries, especially Zimbabwe.
But partly it is a result of South Africa’s reputation for political tolerance and freedom, a reputation of which we can be proud and which we should strive to deserve. Especially since many of those now seeking a home, temporary or permanent, in our country are from populations which offered a safe haven to South Africans fleeing apartheid: Zimbabwe and Angola among them.
The UNHCR expects the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers to increase. In its 2013 predictions, the body estimates that from 480 520 in January, the number of refugees and asylum seekers will rise to 565 520 in December, 361 000 of them from Zimbabwe. If these estimates are correct, the influx of foreign nationals seeking help here is not likely to decrease and the queues outside Customs House are not likely to disappear.
It is up to the authorities to find creative ways to process applications by people like Paul Kmie with speed, efficiency and kindness.
They have come a long way in the hope of finding a refuge here: we cannot respond to their trust with indifference.