On 1 July, Cape Town’s Refugee Reception Office (RRO) officially closed its doors. Because that day fell on a weekend, by 29 June thousands of undocumented migrants were doused in legal insecurity. Only refugees and asylum seekers who already have papers will be serviced at an existing alternative facility. The rest must go elsewhere – although elsewhere doesn’t guarantee a safe or secure future.
By Miriam Mannak, Cape Town
“All I want is a permit,” said Cedric Mutasa. The 18-year-old Zimbabwean’s name has been changed to protect his identity because being undocumented is illegal in South Africa.
Last Friday, he could be found standing in front of the old RRO, a scruffy-looking building in Maitland, some 20 minutes from Cape Town’s city centre. It was Mutasa’s last chance to walk out of there with an asylum seekers permit.
Closing the office so suddenly, without proper notice or consultation, “shows a complete lack of compassion and respect for the basic rights of our most vulnerable members of society,” said PASSOP, an organization promoting the rights of asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa. “This forces new applicants from the Western Cape to travel long distances to have their permits issued.”
According to a statement by the NGO: “Many newcomers have been unable to access the office in weeks and, in some cases, months to have their applications registered.”
Mutasa left Zimbabwe a couple of months ago. The first days after arriving in South Africa, shortly after his parents died, were spent sleeping rough in Johannesburg.
“I lived on the street for four days, without food or money. Then I came to Cape Town. Life is better here. At least I have work,” he said. The teenager currently lives and earns money as a farm worker in De Doorns, some two hours from Cape Town.
When RNW spoke with him last Friday, he had still not obtained a valid permit. The temporary document, which has to be renewed every three to six months, allows someone to stay legally in South Africa while awaiting the result of a refugee status application.
Mutasa says his circumstances were the result of a backlog at the Department of Home Affairs’ and the fact that he was unable to travel to Cape Town often. “The times I did go to the RRO, the queues were very long. They only help a few people a day. The rest need to come back the next day and the next day,” he explained.
Four weeks ago, when the news about RRO’s closure broke, Cedric and some hundred men, women and children from all over Africa, were gathered outside the Maitland building.
Swaying placards and singing protest songs, the crowd demonstrated against the shutdown and the fact that the alternative facility, an old structure near the harbour, would only service asylum seekers and refugees already listed in Home Affairs’ books.
New applicants will be directed elsewhere, the department stated in a memo. PASSOP stressed that this will put “unbearable” pressure on other overburdened RROs.
While the closure of the Maitland office is technically the result of the premises’ landlords terminating the lease, PASSOP assigns blame to Home Affairs.
Two years ago, a local court requested the department’s authorities to choose between forced eviction or outfitting the facility with more mobile toilets and increasing security. The ruling followed a stream of complaints regarding migrants sleeping and urinating in the streets around the RRO.
The toilets never arrived. Neither did the security officers. Pressured by local businesses and residents, the landlords thus terminated the lease.
Push into illegality
According to PASSOP founder Braam Hanekom, the situation could go from bad to worse. “Earlier this year, the department said it intended to close all RROs except for the ones at the border,” he said.
The plan is being contested in court. A ruling is expected later this year.
If this were to happen, some 400,000 people will find themselves in a tricky situation. Hanekom said: “Who can afford to travel to the border every couple of months? Which employer will allow his workers to do this? With this plan, the department consciously disables migrants from finding and keeping work – pushing them into illegality.”
A worst-case scenario for Mutasa would force him to leave the Western Cape, his life and work there included. He acknowledges this, stating: “I do not want to be deported. I have no one in Zimbabwe.”