Friday, December 12, 2014

South Africa: Asylum Seekers Required To Present Documentation

Refugee advocates in South Africa have reacted with dismay and scepticism to a planned revamp of the asylum application process which the government says is designed to distinguish economic migrants from people with a bona fide case for refugee status.

"The granting of asylum should not be contingent on an applicant's skills, economic circumstances, employment history or number of dependants," said Roni Amit, a senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Witwatersrand University, referring to a new 12-page asylum application form, which was published for comment in November.

The form includes detailed questions about education level, employment history and skills, including a request that applicants provide documentation in the form of testimonials and pay slips. There is also a new section on financial status that asks for details of bank accounts inside and outside South Africa and how much money the applicant has brought into the country.

The aim of such questions "is to separate economic migrants from people seeking asylum," said Mayihlome Tshwete, the department of home affairs spokesperson.

"Our refugee system is being heavily burdened by economic migrants," he told IRIN. "There are people who are genuinely in fear of their lives, and their applications are not getting the attention [they deserve]."

South Africa was the third most popular destination for asylum seekers in 2013 (Germany and the US took the two top spots) with 70,000 new asylum applications, according the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This was down from previous years when it was the leading destination, but it has still left the department with a significant backlog. According to UNHCR, over 86,600 cases were yet to receive a first decision by the end of 2013, while a further 145,400 were awaiting appeal decisions at the end of 2012.

However, refugee rights groups have questioned whether the new form is the best way of addressing the backlog.

Amit pointed out that under both international and domestic refugee law, asylum determinations should be based solely on establishing whether individuals face a well-founded fear of persecution or general conditions of instability in their country of origin.

She added that asylum seekers fleeing for their lives were unlikely to have taken any documentation proving their previous employment with them.

UNHCR, in a submission it is preparing to send to Home Affairs, will call for the new form to be simplified. "A lot of the information that they've put there is not needed to take a decision on the merits of a refugee claim," said UNHCR spokesperson Tina Ghelli. "We feel that most asylum seekers wouldn't be able to provide that level of detail. We've offered our technical guidance to help them improve the form."

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