Migration was greatly affected by the South African national lockdown. Initially, travelers from ‘high-risk’ countries were banned from entering South Africa and, during parts of the lockdown, all of South Africa’s land borders were completely closed.
For international migrants already living in South Africa, the announcement of the national lockdown brought confusion and fear around their documentation and legal stay in the country during the pandemic.
‘I cannot ignore the expiry date on my refugee status’
Around 188,000 people in South Africa hold asylum seeker documentation, and around 173,000 people hold refugee documentation. Asylum seeker documentation is typically valid for anything between one and six months.
Therefore, by September 2020, every single person on asylum seeking documentation in South Africa would hold an expired permit.
‘For me it was scary,’ says Muholeza, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). ‘I cannot ignore the expiry date on my refugee status’. Concerned at how the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) would deal with expiring asylum and refugee documentation, Muholeza awaited announcements from the government. ‘I had no idea how they are going to deal with the numbers of people who have expired.’
A blanket extension
Three months after the initial lockdown was announced, on 10 June 2020, the South African government announced in Gazetted Amended Directions that all asylum and refugee documentation that had expired since the beginning of lockdown – 15 March 2020 – would be subject to a blanket extension for a period of four months. We welcomed this announcement as it provided clarity for many of our clients and the wider asylum and refugee population of South Africa. This extension was extended another four times (July 2020, September 2020, January 2021 and most recently in March 2021). Currently, refugee and asylum documentation that has expired on or since 15 March 2020 is considered valid until 30 June 2021.
Accessing services during the pandemic
In theory, this blanket extension meant that people holding recently expired asylum or refugee documents in South Africa would be able to continue accessing banking, employment and other services. For many people, this indeed worked. For example, The Banking Association of South Africa confirmed that their banks did not automatically restrict such bank accounts as a result of expired asylum or refugee documentation. Of some help was a specific announcement by the Department of Home Affairs that ‘all the rights, benefits and obligations of asylum seekers and refugees remain the same.’ For many clients, blockages in accessing banking or employment were lifted once the government regulations were printed and presented by the client.
However, for some of our clients, accessing services with seemingly expired documentation was difficult. As the lockdown lifted slightly, some wondered why the Refugee Reception Offices could not reopen, considering other services and offices were beginning to open their doors. ‘[At that time], I could not see a reasonable argument why Refugee Reception Offices were still closed when they opened up public transport, churches and Home Affairs civic services. The same measures that were applied in those areas could have been applied at the Refugee Reception Office too, such as distancing and 50% capacity.’
Providing remote assistance
During the pandemic, Scalabrini’s Advocacy Programme provided information to clients remotely, using its Advocacy Hotline. Initially, many clients could not access banking, or were facing problems securing their employment, due to the seemingly expired documentation that they were holding. “Failure to provide an updated Section 22 and Section 24 documents meant an inability to access banking services,” recalls Ellen Chirima, Advocacy Officer at Scalabrini, who worked on the Advocacy Hotline. “People were concerned about losing their jobs due to expired documentation and students were worried that their studies would be disrupted due to the failure to submit up to date documents”.
Governmental directives that confirmed the blanket extension for recently expired asylum and refugee documentation assisted such clients. “The blanket extensions provided relief to an extent,” says Ellen, who estimated that about 70% of clients she encountered were able to access previously blocked services once they had the government directives at hand. “For example, in cases where clients had been stopped from going to work, we would reach out to the employer and explain the validity of the Section 22 or Section 24 documents with the backing of the Directions.”
Post-covid: A new online system and mixed feelings
Prior to the pandemic, extending an asylum or refugee document at one of the government’s Refugee Reception Offices was a lengthy task. Muholeza describes it as being a ‘full day commitment.’ In some cases, it required travelling long distances.
A recent report found that 60% of asylum respondents’ adjudications took over five years and – as asylum documentation is issued for anything between one and six months – this would mean multiple trips to Refugee Reception Offices. Eddy (not his real name), also from DRC, has been in the asylum system for 12 years. ‘Before the pandemic, I was having to go to Home Affairs every month. I used to arrive at 3am, and that way I knew I would get inside.’
The most recent DHA directives point to a new system, that moves away from clients going to the Refugee Reception Offices in person. DHA has developed an online system that will allow for the extension of asylum and refugee documentation. (See our infographic here for details on the online system.)
‘For someone like me, who does everything online, I think it will be a relief,’ says Muholeza. ‘But I am still skeptical around it. I can only hope that their service will be efficient.‘ Eddy shares a similar sentiment. ‘For some people, it will be good. But, before covid-19, in Pretoria (Refugee Reception Office), the system was often offline. This online system is fine but we know Home Affairs is the ‘king of offline’ – so I am concerned about this.’
Post-covid: A new online system and mixed feelings
The online renewal system is up and running. Documents are issued using a password-protected PDF. Whilst we welcome this move to an online system, we have yet to see how it will function with larger numbers of applicants. Awareness around the use of these online-issued refugee and asylum documents needs to be heightened as services like banks, schools and workplaces become accustomed to using these documents and verifying them using the email addresses on the document itself.