101027. Cape Town. Maitland Refugee Centre. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

Nathan Geffen has three suggestions to improve the lives of thousands of people in South Africa.

Cape Town - It has become taboo in much of the world to discriminate against people because of their religion, skin colour or sex. Despite recent setbacks, the same goes for sexual orientation. Gradually we are realising that these are arbitrary distinctions, at least when it comes to law and policy.

Yet one type of discrimination remains rife and accepted across the planet, albeit almost as arbitrary as racism. It is discrimination based on location of birth.

Immigrants to South Africa have a torrid time. About 60 000 to 80 000 people apply for asylum in South Africa every year. They are subjected to a system that is Kafkaesque.

Take the example of Ibrahim Abdulkhadir. He is a refugee from Somalia. He came to Cape Town and tried to apply for asylum, as is his right in South African law. But every time he went to the Home Affairs office he was chased away by the security guards, who told him, arguably in contravention of a court order, that the Cape Town office does not process new asylum seekers. So he travelled, at his own expense, to the Home Affairs office in Pretoria. He was arrested along the way, in Bloemfontein, and detained for nearly a month because he didn’t have asylum papers. The experience cost Abdulkhadir more than R12 000, including lawyers’ fees.

The Director-General of Home Affairs, Mkuseli Apleni, has in the past couple of weeks said that his department’s centre for processing refugees in Cape Town will not take any new asylum seekers. This means that if you are not currently dealt with by that office, it’s almost impossible to live as an asylum seeker in Cape Town.


When refugees arrive in South Africa they have to apply for asylum at a refugee centre. In most cases they will receive a Section 22 permit. This permit means that a refugee’s application for asylum is being considered. In practice it takes years – sometimes more than a decade – for most applications to be considered. Nevertheless, the Section 22 permit has to be renewed every few months. It is hard to extend the permit anywhere other than where a person originally applied for it.

The implication of Apleni’s decision is that it is almost impossible for new refugees who wish to be lawful to live in Cape Town. To do so they would have to apply for the Section 22 permit up north and likely have to travel there every few months, which is time-consuming, uncertain and unaffordable.

Even for those asylum seekers who will continue to be processed in Cape Town, the conditions of the temporary refugee centre on the Foreshore are filthy. Applicants have to wait in long queues from early in the morning. If they are too far back in the queue they will often not be seen, and then have to go back another day.


But it is not only asylum seekers who suffer indignities. Xenophobia from ordinary South Africans and the police makes life difficult and unsafe for many immigrants. The Khayelitsha inquiry into policing heard how when Somali shopkeepers report crimes committed by gangs against them, the police, instead of investigating, search the Somali shops and try to find ways to arrest them, usually because they have unlicensed firearms. I don’t support keeping unlicensed firearms, but members of the Somali community are regularly beaten up and murdered. So it is understandable that they take measures to protect themselves, especially since they get little protection from the cops.

It is interesting that despite the ideological ascendancy of free trade, the one critical component of it that is often ignored is freedom for people to offer their labour across borders. South Africa truly needs immigrants. We have a massive skills shortage, several hundred thousand jobs, according to one source. We do little to encourage immigrants to fill these jobs.

For example, the Health Professions Council is so dysfunctional, it can take years for a foreign doctor to get to a point where he or she can practise legally.


Here’s what we can do to improve the lives of many thousands of immigrants:

* Home Affairs in Cape Town should begin processing new asylum applications again.

* The Section 22 permit period should be changed to at least three, or even five, years. I have met asylum seekers who have been renewing their permits every few months for over a decade; their asylum applications have still not been considered.

* Immigrants should be proactively hired into the police force with the purpose of servicing immigrant communities. This will increase the chance that these communities will get decent care from the SAPS.

 * Nathan Geffen is the editor of GroundUp, www.groundup.org, where a longer version of this article first appeared.

** The views expressed here er not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Times