Since May last year, refugees from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia have gone back to the Home Affairs offices every two months, only to be told they would have to return because there were no interpreters to assist them.
Yasmin Rajah, of Refugee Social Services, said the refugees had left their homes because of conflict.
“The South African refugee law states that anyone from outside the country can apply for asylum if they have fled persecution due to political opinion, belonging to a particular social group, race, nationality, religion and if there is generalised conflict in the area.
“They cannot be sent back home until their claim is investigated. Currently, they are not even able to apply and this is leaving people unprotected,” she said.
Rajah explained that those who sought asylum in South Africa had to present themselves at any one of the Refugee Reception Centres around the country.
“They have to give reasons as to why they are seeking refuge.
“They then get a temporary document to say that they have applied for the correct documentation. This prevents police from deporting them,” Rajah said.
Initially, there were people available to assist with translating. Rajah said that there was a central call centre and people who spoke the same language were requested to come on the same day, to make it easier to translate.
“The people who come to us have said there are less people at the call centre.
“So those who have gone for help are told to come back two months later. When they go back two months later, they are sent back. This is causing a backlog,” she said.
Rajah said people were sometimes told that the applications were full.
She said with police and law enforcement agencies pushing Operation Fiela 2 efforts, asylum seekers were living in fear that they would be sent back home.
Rajah said some applicants had had applications declined. However, they were unable to query why they had been turned down.
Rajah said there were also children seeking refuge, which meant they were unable to get into school or have access to basic human rights.
Thandeka Duma, of Lawyers for Human Rights, said they had tried their best to assist those in need.
She said they gave asylum seekers who had faced issues with Home Affairs a letter to state that they had begun the process of seeking the necessary documentation.
“However, this is not a legal document but is merely meant to help. We have dealt with more than 1 000 such cases. These are simply letters of protection. The clients say they are told that Home Affairs is fully booked,” Duma said.
The Department of Home Affairs could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.