South Africa: Activists Sceptical About Home Affairs' Ability to Move Refugee Process Online

Marquee at a refugee camp in Bellville, Cape Town (file photo).

There could soon be relief for scores of asylum seekers and refugees who have been struggling to renew their documents at the Department of Home Affairs, which plan to roll out an online renewal service.

Activist organisations say they are waiting to hear from Home Affairs on how it intends to do this. Some are sceptical of the department's ability to move to an online platform.

Two weeks ago, Home Affairs released a statement that Refugee Reception Centres would remain closed. "The validity of asylum and refugee permits has been extended until 30 June 2021. In due course, the Department will communicate details of an online service to renew these permits."

Various refugee and civil society organisations hosted a mock reopening celebration outside the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office (RRO) last month in a bid to prompt Minister Aaron Motsoaledi to fast track the resumption of services for all refugees and asylum seekers.

Namuma Mulindi of Sonke Gender Justice said even before the Covid-19 lockdown, the Refugee Reception Office had struggled with mounting backlogs.

Refugees and asylum seekers daily waited in long queues outside the RROs despite joining the line in the early hours of the morning.

"A lot of asylum seekers' permits expired during lockdown. The RROs were already bogged down by an inability to effectively render their services. It is unclear if they will be able to effectively migrate to an online system to cater for the backlog plus the new situation created since the lockdown," she said.

Mulindi said the blanket extension of permits only exacerbated the problems experienced by asylum seekers and refugees since the closure of Refugee Reception Offices.

"The situation is frustrating. A lot of migrant parents are struggling to enrol their children in schools and to access healthcare. Those who never had bank accounts before now are precluded from opening accounts until they can present a valid permit.

"Asylum seekers are also struggling to renew and sign residential lease agreements. Employers who are not familiar with the law are fearful of being found to have undocumented migrants and this has affected lot of people," she said.

Questions sent to Home Affairs spokesperson Siyabulela Qoza and Media Manager David Hlabane on 9 April, followed by a call on Tuesday, went unanswered.

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