THE Department of Home Affairs (DHA) aims to provide “people-centred services” but in reality the public are not only receiving shoddy services at many DHA centres but customers, especially asylum seekers, are even being subjected to physical abuse and extortion. The New Age photographer, Thapelo Morebudi, and I witnessed the horror treatment of foreign nationals caught trying to cut the long queues being booted, shoved and even strangled by officials at the Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Centre in Marabastad, Pretoria.
We also saw officials and other unknown men moving foreign nationals to the front of the queue after taking money from them. When the officials saw The New Age camera, they stopped collecting bribes to order the photographer to desist from taking pictures then nonchalantly continued taking money from the queueing customers. Complaints of corruption at the DHA are legion but with locals also being subjected to bribery to get their papers, the asylum seekers are the easiest targets for corrupt officials. “If you do not have money to pay the officials at the office, you will take a back seat. Only people who have money get priority, they are moved to the front by officials so they can be assisted before anyone else,” one customer said.
One person said the officials use intermediaries to collect bribe money because they themselves do not want to be identified. Foreign nationals say they pay up to R50 to officials because after months of waiting, they are desperate to get their papers. Lawyers for Human Rights attorney Faith Munyati said the organisation was dealing with numerous cases of corruption at the refugee reception. “Refugees and asylum seekers come to our offices and complain about requests from security guards to pay to gain access to their premises. “Some confirm that during their asylum process they have been asked to pay a certain fee to get or renew their permits,” Munyati said.
At many DHA offices, customers, some of whom arrive at the crack of dawn, are forced to queue for hours only to be turned away if they are not assisted by 3pm and told to return the next day. This can go on for days. Pacifique Shimata, a Grade 12 pupil from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, needs his ID to be able to write his matric examination. Shimata said he had his first appointment with the DHA in January but was still battling to apply. “My appointment was for March 26. However, I still haven’t been assisted. Today is April 16 but I still haven’t got into the offices. We have been standing here since 5 am,” Shimata said. He expressed frustration at the delays and runaround at a time when he should be focusing on his studies. “I have to come here so many times only to return home empty handed. It’s a waste of time and money.
I should be at school at this time not queuing from the early hours of the morning till the afternoon when they cut the line and tell us to go home.” Shimata said often customers were told that the systems are down but at other times there is no communication about the cause of delays. Kyle Joodt complained about the service at the DHS in the Johannesburg CBD. Joodt said although it took just four days for his passport to be ready, collecting it had been a hassle. “I was pleased with their quick processing of my application but this is my third day coming here hoping to collect it,” he said. In Cape Town, asylum seekers are in limbo due to the closure of the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office in 2012, which was due to reopen for full operation on March 31 after the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in favour of the Scaralbini Centre in December last year and ordered the DHA to reopen the centre. However, the centre remains closed, causing severe hardships for asylum seekers although at a briefing on Tuesday DHA director-general Mkuseli gave an undertaking that it would be reopened shortly as per the court order. “The Department of Home Affairs has no intention of disregarding the judicial directive and we will duly respect the judgment. In this regard, we have commenced with plans to comply with the order,” Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba said in a statement.
However, Sonke Gender Justice has accused the DHA of brazen disregard for the judicial process. “ The Cape Town Refugee Reception Office remains closed to new asylum applicants, which means that new applicants in Cape Town have to travel to Pretoria, Musina or Durban to regularise their stay in South Africa,” Sonke’s Marike Keller, said. “As such, the statement reading ‘the Department of Home Affairs has no intention to disregard the judicial directive and we will duly respect the judgment’ and that they have ‘commenced with plans to comply with the order’ is disingenuous. “The department had similarly been directed by the SCA to reopen a fully functional office in Port Elizabeth by July 1, 2015 and Home Affairs continues to be in breach of that order.”