Parliamentary Question: Dha: Portfolio Committee


Transcript Copy: Briefing by Deputy Minister Fatima Chohan following interaction with the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs Imbizo Media Centre, 120 Plein Street, Cape Town

Comments by Deputy Minister Fatima Chohan

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen of the media and thank you for joining us this afternoon. I apologise that the DG has been detained at the Portfolio Committee briefing. Perhaps he will join us when he is done and we can then discuss the aspects on which he briefed the Portfolio Committee.

I’m not sure what else I can say on refugee affairs but perhaps I can just give you a brief synopsis of what transpired at the Portfolio Committee today.

As you know, South Africa is a signatory to the international Refugee Conventions of 1951 and 1967. We actively participate in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’s (UNHCR’s) Executive Committee; we are a full member of that committee. We take very seriously our commitments at that level.

Clearly what has happened since the Refugee Act was drafted in 1998, is that we have since approximately 2007 been receiving increasing volumes of applications for asylum. As a consequence of this is that our planning and legislative provisions were found wanting. Given that we are located geographically as we are, we also experience, like many other countries, the phenomenon of unskilled economic migrants.

So, given that our immigration processes are essentially a system that limits the number of immigrants into the country based on skills and other criteria, people then are increasingly abusing the systems in place at our refugee centres to gain a foothold into the country.

And while it is easy for us to say that since the problem is about unskilled economic migrants wanting to abuse our system, we must also concede that the system leaves a lot to be desired and has contributed to many challenges that would not have been there had the system been as effective as it needed to be.

With this in mind, we are proceeding as a department both with interim measures that were passed by the Portfolio Committee in the recent amendments proposed to the Refugees Act and we are busy with implementing these. We are also engaged in a long term review and overhaul of the refugee management system. This would entail fundamental policy and systemic changes at our refugee centres so we are able to deal with the loopholes that have become apparent.

We will now be able to take your questions.

Questions and answers:

Question: Deputy Minister, a People Suffering Against Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP) report recently highlighted the challenges of servicing refugees at Refugee Reception Offices saying that officials could barely cope with 14 days. With the suggested amendment to the Immigration Act from 14 to 5 days, is it not going to exacerbate bad and inefficient service delivery to refugees?

Answer: I think we need to understand and conceptualise what we are talking about. There is the process of presenting yourself to a refugee centre and then there is a process where you present yourself to a refugee reception centre and submit an application for asylum. These are two different processes.

What the five days entails – just taking a step back – when someone arrives at our ports of entry saying they do not have a visa, they are not immigrants or visitors, so they do not have any of these permits to allow them into the country. In fact they are refugees who want to apply for asylum in South Africa.

What happens at this time is if you are at our ports of entry, you are issued with a permit that allows you to enter the country legally and then you are allowed the time to present yourself at the Refugee Reception Centre.

Once you have presented yourself at a Refugee Reception Centre, I think we then have to begin making a distinction between the application and the presenting. What we are currently mooting is a system where the client is able to present themselves at our office, be recorded, and walk away with an application. That application does not necessarily have to be processed. However once you receive the application, you also receive a sojourning visa which allows you the ability to remain in the country for a longer period of time. The five days are interrupted when you present yourself at the office and you receive a section 22 sojourning visa.

So, there we want to make this differentiation. The issue of the 14 days is therefore neither here not there as a result. What we are not expecting is that people will complete their application process at the time they present themselves at a Refugee Reception Office. We are working out the technicalities of these processes. And we are currently busy with this.

Question: Deputy Minister, NGOs have also been complaining that certain days are dedicated to certain nationalities. So, what will happen if for instance, a Somalian arrives in the country on a Tuesday and can only be assisted at the centre on the following Tuesday. The five days will have long passed by then.

Answer: This is precisely why I am saying the nationality specific days are for processing of applications, not for presenting yourself. When you present yourself, you literally go to one of our centres, say I need an application form.

The issue pertaining to specialised days becomes almost critical for us to maintain is because sometimes our officials do not speak certain languages and we have to bring in translators and interpreters to accommodate that nationality. This facilitates the processing of these applications.

So when we say present it has a significantly different meaning to what NGOs are referring to at the moment. The processing of applications does indeed take much longer and is a more involved process than when you just present yourself at one of our offices.

Question: Deputy Minister, when a person enters a country, must they have some sort of document or are they just allowed in? What sort of security risk does this pose?

Answer: Ordinarily anyone who presents him or herself at our ports of entry and this includes, land, air and sea ports – must have a visa. There are some exemptions where certain countries do not require visas but a passport is certainly required.

However, when it comes to refugees, international law recognizes that refugees, given that they are a particular category of people – let me repeat what this refers to specifically, these are people who on the basis of religion, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, etc are being persecuted in their countries of origin so they and their dependents are recognised as refugees.

So, if you are being persecuted and you literally flee for your life, there is every possibility that you may do so without your passport. And in some instances you may not even have a passport since you are being persecuted. Therefore international law does recognise that refugees may not have any documents when they enter a country. However, they should present themselves as refugees as soon as possible at our borders or at refugee reception offices if they have entered our country illegally.

Question: Deputy Minister, does this not then open up the opportunity for say, for instance, a terrorist to say I’m a refugee and need asylum?

Answer: As I’ve said they system is open to abuse and one of the most recent issues that most countries are dealing with is how to curb the abuses we are seeing. This also pertains to categories of people who do not qualify for refugee status. And what this does is that our systems get clogged up because there are so many people who are utilising the system.

We must also however carry our security checks and one of the things we must look at it is the sort of security checks we need to conduct. We will also be looking at international best practice in this regard.

Of course, if you are wanted criminal on the V-list, our systems are able to pick up and identify such people. It is people who are wanted by Interpol for crimes and other misdeeds. This is one of the screening tests we do for people who come into the country.

Question: Deputy Minister, is this the reason that amendments to the Immigration Act have been effected – the security element?

Answer: We did not deal with this in the Portfolio Committee today. Security is an issue, but also efficiency. We have tried to dovetail many of these issues with the New Growth Path.I am not certain which restrictions you are referring to. One of these is in relation to corporate permits. In this regard, we have said that we will not grant corporate permits to certain categories of enterprises because we have found certain industries have mushroomed in our country  for instance exotic dancers. Corporate permits refer to skills we require but cannot access in South Africa. I’m not certain that we do not have dancers in this country and I’m certainly not sure what the term exotic refers to, legally or otherwise. The idea was to stop the mushrooming of industries that abuse our systems.

Question: Deputy Minister, would you be in favour of the blacklisting of Gijima by National Treasury?

Answer: I do not know if the DG was laying the blame for these irregularities at the feet of Gijima. At the time these contracts were concluded, the processes both within the department and State Information Technology Agency (SITA) left a lot to be desired. And so for us to lay the blame elsewhere would not do. We must look at our own systems and ensure we not repeat the same mistakes again.

Issued by: Department of Home Affairs
29 Jun 2011