Theophile Mugisho has been volunteering as an English teacher to refugee and asylum-seeking women at a refugee organisation in Durban for the past two months, teaching every Thursday and Friday morning.
“I only do it to keep my mind fresh while I wait,” said Mugisho, 52, after an intensive morning class on a recent Thursday. “After this I will go to the [Malherbe library at the University of KwaZulu-Natal] to go read for the rest of the afternoon.”
He is an asylum seeker himself, fleeing the violence in Bukavu in the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
He arrived in South Africa in August last year, leaving his wife and three children behind in Bukavu – a place notoriously dangerous for women in the Congo. Mugisho is one of hundreds of Congolese people who fled the violence in recent years and came to seek refuge in South Africa.
After multiple visits to the Refugee Reception Office (RRO) in Durban, where asylum seekers apply for permission to stay in the country, Mugisho finally got an appointment to request the necessary documentation he needs to start the process of becoming a refugee. His appointment was on 22 July 2019.
“Although I’ve got an appointment, they might not give me the documents. I had a good job and was living peacefully in the Congo until it became too dangerous. It is very important for me to get the right documents,” Mugisho said a week before his appointment. “I strongly believe if I can get documents, I can get a job and start my life in South Africa.”
Mugisho plans on pursuing a PhD in gender studies if he gets the papers required to make him a refugee in South Africa. He already holds a masters degree in conflict resolution, and is fluent in multiple languages. But because of his legal status in South Africa, he is not allowed to work.
It has taken nearly a year for Mugisho to secure an appointment at the RRO. “I have been going every Monday. It is extremely frustrating,” he said. Following his appointment on Monday, Mugisho waited for hours before his fingerprints were captured. He was told to return the following week for an interview.
Yasmin Rajah, the director of Refugee Social Services at the Diakonia Centre in Durban, where Mugisho volunteers, said it has been an ongoing problem in recent years for asylum seekers to secure appointments.
No appointments available
Rajah recently posted on Facebook that asylum seekers from countries such as the DRC, Burundi, and Zimbabwe are being turned away by Home Affairs officials and told to return at later dates, with one Burundian client claiming they were told to return in February next year.
Rajah said the manager of the RRO had explained to her that the centre was understaffed, lacked other resources and was plagued by issues such as the system outages experienced by other Home Affairs offices throughout the country.
“They’ve been booking on a monthly basis, and once it is full, they tell you to come back next month. And they were booking and booking and booking. And this is why they are full until February next year,” Rajah said.
Refugee Reception Offices only accept applicants from certain countries on certain days to allow for the correct interpreters to be available. But that system has changed as well.
“They used to have interpreters in the office, probably like two or three years ago. They now have this call centre where the interpretation comes via the telephone. And if that doesn’t work … it doesn’t work, so they can’t do it. So these were the challenges they put to us,” Rajah said.
“We’ve been saying you can’t not give [asylum application appointments]. You need to ask for more resources,” she said. Rajah said the Refugee Social Services and other organisations are planning a peaceful march on 8 August 2019 to the RRO to call on Home Affairs to relook at the management of the centre and call for change.
Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) suggested this planned march, having taken the department to court in 2018 over the Durban RRO and its failure to book appointments for asylum applications sooner. Nomagugu Mlawe, an attorney for LHR’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme described it as an “access crisis”.
“It has many repercussions. If you are undocumented, besides that you don’t have legal status, if you don’t have legal status you don’t have access to any social services,” Mlawe said, with access to healthcare and education being two of the biggest concerns.
“[The department is] creating a pool of vulnerable people. You are undocumented, you can’t get employment. Creating a pool of people you can’t trace on the system, there is no system that says so and so from the DRC is in South Africa because they have not been captured [on the system]. So that then also opens them up to social ills,” she said.
Society’s most vulnerable
Sabimana*, 43, is one such person. She fled Rumonge in Burundi with her children after she received threats from neighbours with ties to an opposition political party. Sabimana followed the same path her husband made roughly six years earlier and arrived in Durban in May last year.
“I didn’t want to come, but my neighbours who are politicians were pressurising me to leave. They told me, ‘If you don’t leave, you will go through what your husband went through, torture, beatings’,” she said through a translator.
Sabimana’s husband received asylum in South Africa after a protracted wait, and worked as a motorbike delivery driver until an accident a few years ago. She now has to look after her husband and children, who are unable to attend school while she waits on a date to finalise her application.
Abdi Abdillah Warsame, 32, who volunteers as an interpreter at the Refugee Social Services in Durban finally received his asylum seekers permit in March this year after seven months of going to the RRO and trying to secure an appointment. He is still waiting for the outcome of his refugee status application.
“I’m a little bit happy about this, but my paper is still not good. I have to extend it every three months. There is no guarantee they will extend it and there is no guarantee that I will get the refugee papers,” said Warsame, the son of a Somali man and Congolese woman.
He said his mixed nationality made him face discrimination in both the DRC and Somalia. But it was the violence in Somalia that made him come to South Africa.
“I’m in a dilemma. We refugees, the big problem for us in South Africa is Home Affairs. Nobody wants to seek asylum. We want to stay in our countries. But when we come here to seek asylum it means we are looking for assistance,” he said.
“It is not good to stay illegal in this country, or in any country. I can decide to stay illegally, but it is not good. It is not ethical,” he said. “Why are we coming to this country? It is because of the peace. It has a constitution. It promotes human rights.”
Durban office understaffed
Despite the allure of peace, a constitution and the promotion of human rights, asylum seekers and refugees still face discrimination and resistance from Home Affairs officials. Departmental spokesperson David Hlabane denied any suggestion that Home Affairs was making it impossible for potential refugees to apply for asylum.
“No orders or instructions are given in this regard. Each claim for asylum is decided based on its own merits,” Hlabane said. “There are five refugee reception officers [in Durban] tasked with registering the applications for asylum. This includes the completion of the application for asylum and the capturing of the biometrics of each applicant, including each member of a family. The said staff capacity also extends the asylum seeker permits for pending asylum seekers. This averages approximately 350 permits per day.”
Hlabane acknowledged that there was a dire shortage of resources at the RRO in Durban. “Durban’s management has identified the need for refugee reception officers, and this has been submitted to the relevant unit in the department,” he said.
He said part of the reason the Durban RRO was overwhelmed with applications and turning people away was because they entered the country at the Beitbridge port of entry, declared themselves to be asylum seekers and received a Transit Visa valid for five days.
“They pass the Musina Refugee Centre in Musina and also the Desmond Tutu Refugee Centre in Pretoria. The asylum seekers have the opportunity to seek asylum at these respective refugee centres, but they do not do so. Instead, they choose to travel all the way to Durban to seek asylum there,” he said.