By Paul Canning
As South Africa gears up to remove more than one million refugees, advocates are warning that gay asylum seekers risk being 'refouled' - returned to a place where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.
Most asylum seekers in South Africa are from Zimbabwe - but the country hosts possibly thousands of LGB and T people fleeing repression from all over African.
It has set a July 31 deadline for registration, after which it will start repatriations. Advocates have called for an extension citing an error-filled and often chaotic process which has led to many being without the proper papers to stay.
Braam Hanekom from the refugee advocacy group PASSOP - the only group with a LGBT refugee support project - says that they have written an urgent appeal to the Minister of Home Affairs for a two month extension because through their monitoring "there is no possible way that applicants of the Zimbabwean Dispensation Permits will be able to collect their permits in time."
PASSOP surveyed the Refugee Reception Office (RRO) in Cape Town (see report below) and found that:
"Given the number of newcomers and those seeking renewal who are turned away each day, there are hundreds of people who try to get or renew papers who are unable to through no fault of their own. This makes the heavy jail time attached to being undocumented harsh and unnecessary."
"The DHA [Home Affairs department] needs to abolish its rule that certain days are reserved for certain people, in addition to making the process more fair, less corrupt, and more efficient. To aid newcomers who are turned away due to lines being too long, it might help to give them a receipt to prove that they came while their border passes were still valid, or to reserve them a space in line for the following week or day. Perhaps opening on Saturdays would also help to relieve the pressure."Human Rights Watch urged the government in June not to close a refugee processing centre in Johannesburg.
"PASSOP has no reason to believe that the situation is different at the other five refugee reception offices around the country, and in fact probably worse in Pretoria and Johannesburg, making this monitoring relevant nationwide."
PASSOP say that the Zimbabwean Consulate has been "both uncooperative and inefficient" in delivering passports to applicants.
"Thus, while we recognize that there is a need for projects to have deadlines, guided by our monitoring observations, it is our view that given the proximity of the Zimbabwean Dispensation Project deadline and the large amount of permits yet to be issued, there is a need to extend the current deadline."Hanekom points out that, although the plight of Zimbabwean LGBTI immigrants is at the forefront:
"We maintain that (considering the sad state of LGBTI rights in most other African countries) that any member of the LGBTI African immigrant community in South Africa has a right to obtain asylum seeking permits and ultimately refugee status."Although Section 1(1)(xxi) of the Refugees Act says that “‘social group’ includes, among others, a group of persons of particular gender, sexual orientation, disability, class or caste”, PASSOP say that "many LGBTI people are turned away unjustly.".
"The status determination process, and the decisions that emerge from this process, do more than just violate refugee and administrative law. They also have a profound effect on bona fide asylum seekers — those who are genuinely fleeing persecution. For these individuals, receiving a decision stating that it is safe for them to return to their country of origin — a decision based on outdated information, an incorrect application of the law, or factors that are in no way related to their experience and which do not take their experience into account — can result in a serious threat to their life and liberty."A report by Roni Amit, 'Protection and Pragmatism: Addressing Administrative Failures in South Africa’s Refugee Status Determination Decisions' for the Forced Migration Studies Programme, which reviewed several hundred decisions, found that in one case:
"A claimant who sought asylum on the grounds of sexual orientation, after fleeing persecution because of his homosexuality, was rejected as manifestly unfounded."
"The RSDO [Refugee Status Determination Officer] concluded: “Your claim is made on the grounds other than those on which an application for asylum may be made. The claim is based on sexually related issues [sic]."The Road to Documentation: Asylum Seekers’ Access to Cape Town’s Refugee Reception Centre