Three Insights on Migration: Samantha Coetzee
The Scalabrini team works with migrants and refugees every day. With such deep expertise at hand, we take the opportunity to reflect on migration with them. This month we speak to Samantha, former Advocacy intern, and Office Administrator for Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa (SIHMA). Samantha is driven by her vision of fostering an inclusive society for everyone who lives within the bounds of South Africa.
The law on paper vs law in practice
Through her work in the Advocacy team, Samantha has realised that although South Africa’s law and policy towards people who are refugees and asylum seekers is progressive, a lack of proper implementation could lead to vulnerable people being sent back to their home countries where they would likely be in danger. It has become increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to attain legal documentation in South Africa.
In 2012, the Cape Town Refugee Office stopped issuing new asylum permits. The Refugee office also ceased permit renewal issued by a different office. New asylum seekers who arrive in Cape Town must travel to one of the only four operational Refugee Reception Offices in Gqeberha, Durban, Pretoria or Musina, to apply for asylum.
The inaccessible nature of this decision has severely limited access to making an asylum claim in South Africa. The travel costs involved make it an unfeasible option for most. Even more difficult, is gaining refugee status after applying for asylum. Samantha says that some people have been on an asylum permit for 20 years and are still waiting for a decision.
Delays in issuing documentation
Sam explains that when a person applies for asylum, they go through a procedure for the state to decide whether they will be granted refugee status or not. By law, it should not take more than 180 days for the decision to be made, yet, many people who have been on the Section 22 temporary asylum seeker permit for years are still waiting for recognition of their refugee status.
Samantha has witnessed the dire consequences these delays have had on vulnerable people who arrive in South Africa in search of safety and dignity. “You find that someone applied for a refugee permit because of specific life-threatening circumstances, and now it’s 15-20 years on, and the situation in their country may have changed. The claim, and the facts that they gave for leaving, may no longer be relevant.”
“Often, they have children who are in school and have been here for the past 20 years, – and Home Affairs responds by saying ‘oh, it’s not like that in your country anymore so you can go home now.’ In the DRC, for example, the conflict is mostly concentrated on the eastern parts of the country now, so people from Kinshasha and Lubumbashi are experiencing the rejection of their claims and are being told that those are now considered ‘safe’ areas, so they should go back home. Having waited 20 odd years for their application decision they’ve spent most of that time integrating into society and building their lives here, but are now being told that they must return home because the state has finally processed their claim.”
Difficulties in being able to access the correct documentation often means that people who are refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are unable to access services or secure employment. After the online renewal system was introduced during the lockdown, delays in the online system only exacerbated these challenges. Many people lost their jobs, had their bank accounts frozen, and struggled to access social services.
“What you find when people go to the banks or they go to the hospitals, or when they try to enrol their child in school, they are turned away. They are often told that their permits are no longer valid.”
Shift in perspective
South Africa has a responsibility to uphold its legal obligations in providing protection, to people seeking safety from persecution. Sam encourages South Africans to start viewing migration as positive. She has seen how people who are migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are viewed as a threat and often used as a scapegoat to the social ills in South Africa.
The reality is that migrants do not take jobs away from locals. Sam says that if anything, South Africa benefits from taking in non-nationals. “What I mean by this is that for an asylum seeker, refugee or migrant to gain sustainable employment, they need valid documentation, this also enables them to register with SARS to pay tax – which is often higher’’. People who are migrants pay both income and Value Added Tax. These taxes make up 9% of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product. “Migrants contribute to the growth of the country” Sam affirms.