Some refugee reception offices in South Africa have stopped accepting new asylum applications as the government enforces stricter measures to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.
Fears around the spread of the coronavirus have led to the South African government taking the extraordinary step of closing 35 of the country's 72 ports of entry. After President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster on 15 March 2020, some refugee reception offices have apparently also suspended issuing and renewing asylum permits while their staff wait to receive protective gear.
A number of migrant and non-governmental organisations that help asylum seekers have reported anecdotal incidents of these offices, including the ones in Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Durban, not accepting new applicants.
The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela Refugee Rights Centre in Port Elizabeth say they have heard of asylum seekers being told that the refugee reception offices in these cities won't be taking new applicants until staff members have been supplied with masks, gloves and hand sanitisers.
The Department of Home Affairs has not confirmed the measures that have been put in place to deal with the arrival of asylum seekers, with phone calls and WhatsApp messages to the minister's spokesperson, Siya Qoza, and the department's media manager, David Hlabane, going unanswered.
Linton Harmse, director of the Refugee Rights Centre, said the closure of these offices could have a severely negative impact on new asylum applicants as well as existing asylum seekers in South Africa wanting to renew their permits.
"The impact will be wide. If you have a bank account and your permit expires, the day it expires your bank account is frozen. It will only be opened again if you come with a new permit. So if you don't get the new permit in that week or the next month, you will be without your money," he said.
"You won't have access to your funds. Obviously, you would not be able to buy food, pay school fees, buy sanitiser, go to the doctor. You know everything costs money. That is one of the immediate ways it will impact asylum seekers.
"That is if you are already documented," Harmse continued. "There are hundreds of asylum seekers who have not been documented yet. They are given an appointment in 30 days' time. They come then and are just given another 30 days. They are not seen because [home affairs] does not have staff capacity."
Harmse warned that asylum seekers could either remain undocumented or lose their legal status if their permits expire and they are unable to renew them because of coronavirus-related delays.
Closed borders not the answer
Jean Bwasa, chairperson of The Right to Live and a leader of the Congolese community in Johannesburg, said he is worried about asylum seekers. "It will have a negative impact on new applicants who are already in the country because they will become illegal. Closing the borders is a good thing in that each and every country wants to protect its citizens, but it goes against the goals to have a borderless Africa.
"There are still countries in Africa where there is conflict and war. We need to think of strategies other than closing the borders," he said.
Sally Gandar, head of advocacy and legal adviser at the Scalabrini Centre, said the closure of ports of entry is a concern. "We call on the government to ensure that the manner of implementation does not violate South Africa's obligations in terms of international and domestic law and the principle of non-refoulement."
Non-refoulement is a principle under international human rights law which guarantees that no person be returned to a country where they may face persecution or harm.
"In addition, if [refugee reception offices] are not accepting new asylum applications, which would mean the asylum applicant does not adhere to the five-day requirement in asylum transit visas, the [department] must ensure that there is a general amnesty from strict adherence to those provisions during this time," Gandar said. "This would be the correct and sensible strategy to take to ensure protection of all persons within South Africa, and better public health outcomes.
"Now, more than ever, the department needs to communicate more effectively and urgently with this population. The implications of ignoring or continuing to treat this part of our population as invisible will be felt by all persons in South Africa. Health, and by implication illness, knows no borders and a virus does not stop and ask for an individual's immigration status prior to being transmitted. Vulnerable populations need to be specifically addressed and catered for in the government's response. Failure to do this would simply mean that the response is not a comprehensive one."
Overcrowding a concern
Michael Clements, acting national director of Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), called for a moratorium on the detention and deportation of migrants as well as unnecessary arrests and detention for Schedule 1 offences.
"Detained individuals in overcrowded detention centres such as Lindela Repatriation [Centre], police stations and remand prisons are at high risk of contracting and spreading the virus. These facilities are ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak of the disease. This is especially true in relation to the elderly and those suffering from chronic illnesses," said Clements. "LHR further calls on the Department of Home Affairs to present its plan of action regarding the renewal of asylum seeker permits, considering the president's prohibition on gatherings of more than 100 people."
Gandar added: "We understand that at least two refugee reception offices, in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, are closed, apparently until the staff are provided with protective gear. We have also been told that the Durban office is no longer accepting new asylum applicants, only processing renewals.
"While gloves, masks and hand sanitiser may provide some protection to [department] staff members, it does not contain the spread from person to person ... and so these types of measures would be wholly inadequate if they're the only measure implemented.
"This is particularly evident when one considers that, on any single day, far more than 100 people try to access services at a refugee reception office. The president has prohibited gatherings of over 100 people and all non-essential travel. These prohibitions should also be implemented in a way that ensures that asylum seekers and refugees rights are respected, protected, promoted and fulfilled," Gandar said.
Refugees in limbo
The International Organisation for Migration and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have meanwhile announced that they would temporarily suspend the resettlement of refugees.
In a statement on the UNHCR's website, the organisations said: "As countries drastically reduce entry into their territories owing to the Covid-19 global health crisis, and restrictions around international air travel are introduced, travel arrangements for resettling refugees are currently subject to severe disruptions. Some states have also placed a hold on resettlement arrivals given their public health situation, which impacts on their capacity to receive newly resettled refugees.
"Refugee families are being directly impacted by these quickly evolving regulations in the course of their travel, with some experiencing extensive delays while others have been stranded or separated from family members."
During a press briefing on 17 March 2020, Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi spoke about the possibility of renewing long-term visas that are due to expire soon. He said the department would "very gladly renew visas" until July, but people would have to give a good reason for wanting to stay in South Africa. He said nothing about refugees or asylum seekers.
This story will be updated should the department respond to queries.