Where to from here? Reflecting on our legal battle to reopen Cape Town’s Refugee Office
It might have taken eleven years – but the court case to reopen the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office was successful in rolling back the government’s attempts to restrict access to asylum in South Africa. In June, attorneys, refugee-led organisations, activists and researchers came together to reflect on the long path to accessing asylum in Cape Town – and what the sector can learn from it.
The importance of urban Refugee Reception Offices
In July 2012, the South African government stopped accepting asylum applications at the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office (CTRRO). At that time, the CTRRO was housed in a warehouse-like building tucked between factories in Maitland. In the first four months of 2012 alone, nearly 6,000 asylum applications were lodged and the office was the second busiest in the country.
The closure therefore had a significant impact on the asylum system and refugee communities. Urban reception offices are the foundation of South Africa’s urban refugee policy and are the main point of interaction between refugees and the state. It is where documentation is issued, interviews are conducted, and family members joined to files.
The CTRRO closure was explained as a part of a process to relocate offices to border areas because cities were considered too problematic to operate in. The CTRRO was a busy facility but its operations were impacted by a number of practices, many of which were challenged in the courts and found unlawful, that created barriers for individuals in accessing the offices, creating backlogs and crowds. “The closures and unlawful practices displayed an intention to restrict access to offices through measures not found in legislation as opposed to exploring other means to address the challenges such as more effective processes and offering more accessible visa options for those coming to South Africa for economic reasons,” explained Corey Johnson of the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town.
Many civil society organisations were concerned that these changes were undermining the refugee protection system and were being implemented without any public policy-making process or public consultation. The critical details of how offices on the border would function, how complex cases would be dealt with, were not available nor were any new offices opened to compensate for the closure of the CTRRO and other urban RROs in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg. Civil society argued that the abrupt closure and lack of clarity on policies would have profound impacts not only on refugee communities, but also had implications for governance and the rule of law.
Civil society’s response to the closure of the CTRRO
Upon the initial closure of the CTRRO in 2012, two civil society organisations (Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town and Legal Resources Centre) took the government to court. Devon Turner, an attorney at the Legal Resources Centre who spoke at the event, highlighted his concern about DHA taking a decision to close the CTRRO without consulting the public. But, for him, “the scariest part was the fact that DHA took the very same decision to close the CTRRO after court-ordered public consultations” – at which people described the hardships created by its closure. (This is pertinent to the recent High Court decision on the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit – which orders DHA to reconsider their decision “following a fair process.”)
Dangerous journeys: the hardships created by the CTRRO closure
The hardships created by the CTRRO closure were illustrated at the event by Abdikadir Mohamed from the Somali Association of South Africa. People seeking asylum in South Africa might settle in Cape Town “due to existing family and friendship networks,” explained Abdikadir. During the closure of the CTRRO, these asylum-seekers had to travel to other cities to apply for asylum. These journeys were expensive and dangerous, explained Abdikadir. In an example of “community creativity,” businesses sprung up providing minibus services to other cities where asylum could be applied for. Those minibuses were particularly susceptible to police checks, at which undocumented asylum-seekers were vulnerable to arrest. Nabeelah Mia from Lawyers for Human Rights, speaking at the event, reflected on how “it was this lack of access to asylum [due to the RRO closures] that resulted in people being more susceptible to detention and deportation.”
If a person seeking asylum managed to get to a functioning RRO, it could take days or weeks to gain access to the office – resulting in many people returning to Cape Town undocumented. The question here, according to Abdikadir was, “who’s fault is it that they return undocumented, after trying so hard? Was it really the asylum seeker’s fault, as DHA claimed?”
Forging ahead to reopen the CTRRO
By 2018, the CTRRO remained closed. DHA was being “intentionally slow” in opening the refugee reception office according to Devon. Together with the Somali Association of South Africa and the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, they returned to court. They asked the courts to appoint a Special Master to oversee the reopening of the CTRRO and ensure regular progress reports. At the hearing of the case, the parties eventually agreed that the matter be referred to case management to be overseen by the acting judge appointed to hear the matter. This – along with the proactive role of the acting judge in terms of case management – ultimately resulted in the CTRRO reopening.
The “bittersweet” reopening of the CTRRO
In April 2023, the CTRRO was reopened amid a ceremony attended by the Minister of Home Affairs, who described the new office as a “state of the art facility.” Devon describes the reopening as a “bittersweet” moment: although it was joyful, it also marked eleven years of hardship inflicted on those seeking asylum in South Africa.
“Can we measure how many people had to leave South Africa because they could not get asylum? Can we measure how many people were arrested trying to get to other Refugee Reception Offices? We cannot, but at least these [events] are the kinds of spaces that we can reflect on these issues.” – Devon Turner, Legal Resources Centre
There are no statistics on asylum applications at the reopened CTRRO so far. One of the event attendees, who works with people seeking asylum in Cape Town, explained that the quality of RSDO decisions seemed to have improved slightly. However, she has noticed an emerging pattern of Somali asylum-seekers having their claims declared “fraudulent” – a type of rejection that has limited avenues of appeal.
Moving forward to ensure access to asylum in South Africa
Participants at the event gathered four reflections on how the sector can move forward, considering the CTRRO closure case.
- The CTRRO closure case shows the power of civil society – and we need to keep drawing on this power. This power, created by solidarity among diverse organisations, includes litigation – but it encompasses other kinds of advocacy and community action. It is this power that must continue in monitoring the government’s approaches to asylum. Of note is the recent indication, by the Minister of Home Affairs, that a new White Paper on International Migration could be drafted – which would mean an overhaul of the current refugee, migration and citizenship legislation.
- Organisations providing assistance to people seeking asylum must continue to do so, and be supported in this. Resources, such as translated infographics on the online asylum system, can be helpful. Other initiatives, such as the Immigration Detention Hotline, can be shared with people navigating the asylum system.
- The transition to the online asylum system has created dangerous dependency for some people seeking asylum, and the sector must caution clients of this. Some internet cafes offer “advice” to assist in applications to the (free) online asylum system, for which they charge a fee. Furthermore, passwords to the associated email accounts are kept by the internet cafe – meaning that asylum-seekers are forced to return to the same person each time to check on the status of their asylum application.
- Arguing cases on personal liability could be an option for future similar court cases. Organisations such as Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Resources Centre note the significance of a recent – and unusual – admission by the Minister of Home Affairs that his department failed to comply with court orders. He undertook, personally, to ensure that his department would comply going forward. This has deep significance for the sector as a whole in terms of pursuing liability in cases where DHA fail to implement court orders
“It was like we had a locked room in front of us. What we are celebrating today is that we have unlocked that room. Now we are in that room. It is empty in here: we still need tables and chairs, but we are starting to pick those things up. We are starting to make another plan.” Abdikadir Mohamed, the Somali Association of South Africa