By Zekhethelo Cele, Legal Intern, Cape Town
On 6 April ProBono.Org Cape Town together with Sonke Gender Justice, the Legal Resources Centre, the South African Human Rights Commission, UCT Refugee Law Clinic, Scalabrini, Resilience Africa and UNIFAM held an awareness event as part of their mission to ensure that the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office (CTRRO) reopens and is fully functional.
The Director General of Home Affairs decided to close the CTRRO to new applicants for asylum after 29 June 2012, which the Western Cape High Court ruled was unlawful. The court ordered that the CTRRO be reopened by 1 July 2013, but the Director General took the decision on appeal. Consequently, on 26 September 2017 the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld the Western Cape High Court’s decision, stating that the Department of Home Affairs’ decision to close the CTRRO was both unlawful and irrational, citing the Department’s responsibilities towards the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, and ordered the CTRRO to reopen by 30 March 2018.
Despite the constitutional implications of closing the office, the Department of Home Affairs had argued that the CTRRO was closed due to the undesirability and difficulty in operating urban Refugee Reception Offices. It further stated that the location of Cape Town is unfavorable due to many asylum seekers entering South Africa through its northern borders. In spite of the latest court ruling, it was apparent that the CTRRO would not reopen to assist new asylum seekers by 30 March 2018 as per the court order. As civil society representatives, our purpose is to ensure that the Department of Home Affairs, the Ministry and the Director General are held accountable and remain answerable to the public in this regard, as they stand in contempt of court.
We have made various attempts to find out when the office will reopen, but representatives from the CTRRO advised that they need to secure new premises first and allege that the Department of Public Works has been delaying the process. When asked why they needed to obtain new premises since the current office was fully functional before it closed its doors to new asylum seekers, we were advised that they did not have the mandate to answer this question.
As civil society representatives, we are well aware of the hardships that new asylum seekers in Cape Town have to go through to get their papers. The logistical implications are simply unreasonable and very unfair. People have to travel long distances to either Pretoria, Durban or Musina, regardless of where they are living in the country. This involves asylum seekers in the Western Cape and surrounding provinces having to travel to these cities at their own expense, taking days off work and being forced to keep their children out of school for the duration of their trip. Even then, it is not guaranteed that they will be assisted within a day, since the lines are exceptionally long and the process itself a dreadful one that could take months and even years to finalise.
ProBono.Org together with other NGOs believe that this situation is dire, and the rights of asylum seekers are being undermined.
We have been tirelessly appealing to the Department of Home Affairs and the Minister to prioritise the reopening of the CTRRO. Its closure has given rise to gross constitutional implications and the effects thereof will have a negative impact on South Africa’s interactions with neighboring countries.
As NGOs, we have dubbed ourselves “The Department of Happiness Affairs” and asylum seekers and the general public participated in the 6 April awareness event. We hope that this event has regained the attention of the relevant departments to ensure that the court order is not simply lost in processes and swept under the rug.