Many Angolan refugees living in South Africa have been left undocumented after a deadline for the cessation of their refugee status elapsed before they were able to secure immigration permits or exemption decisions.
In May, the South African government announced plans to implement a recommendation by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to end refugee status for Angolans who had fled their country due to the civil war, which ended in 2002. Nearly 6,000 Angolan refugees, the majority of whom live in Cape Town, were given until 31 August to either repatriate to Angola, apply for an exemption in order to remain in South Africa as a refugee, or apply for a temporary residence permit under “relaxed” documentation requirements.
Help desks were set up at Refugee Reception Offices to give the refugees information and help filling out the required forms.
Reluctant to return
Very few of the refugees were interested in returning home. In fact, according to the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, which has been assisting Angolans affected by the cessation process, by the August deadline only 11 refugees had done so.
“None of the guys I know want to go back to Angola,” said Manuel Panzo, chairperson of the Congress of Student and Angola Community, a group representing Angolans in South Africa. He described the government of Angola under the leadership of President José Eduardo dos Santos as “a totalitarian regime”, adding that former political activists were “scared to go back”.
Others were reluctant to give up work and family ties that they had established in South Africa over more than a decade of residence.
Two of Angolan refugee Joao Pedro’s three children were born in Cape Town, where he is supporting his family through his job as a pipe fitter. Following the May announcement, he decided to apply for a residence permit, but on approaching the help desk at the Cape Town Refugee Office was told that he would first have to apply for an Angolan passport.
He made the passport application in mid-July, but did not receive his passport before the 31 August deadline. As a result, he missed the three-month window that would have allowed him to apply for a two-year temporary residency permit under relaxed requirements and is now, essentially, undocumented.
“I have no clue what’s going to happen,” he told IRIN. “At any time they could come to my home and deport me and my family.”
Corey Johnson, an advocacy officer with the Scalabrini Centre, said that the majority of Angolan refugees who had applied for passports were in the same situation, but that the Department of Home Affairs has said it will not extend the window.
At a 31 August meeting at the Cape Town Refugee Office between deputy home affairs minister Fatima Chohan and a group of Angolan refugees, Chohan reportedly told the refugees that her department would not be extending any statuses, and that once their passports arrived, they would be required to leave South Africa within two weeks and apply for immigration permits at the South African embassy in Angola. She warned that those who did not comply could be repatriated and denied re-entry into South Africa.
“Concerns were raised by various people that three months probably wasn’t going to be long enough [for the process]. The whole time, [the Department of Home Affairs] said no one would be left undocumented, but here we are,” said Johnson. “It’s been a total about-face on the cessation process and the effects of it are quite severe.”
He added that Scalabrini had already received reports of affected refugees losing their jobs, having problems accessing their bank accounts and being scared to leave their homes due to their lack of documentation.
Lack of communication
Pedro still has his job but said that he would most likely lose it if he had to return to Angola to apply for permits for himself and his wife and children, a process that could take months with no guarantee of the outcome.
“Basically, there’s a lack of communication and a lack of commitment between the three parties - UNHCR, the Angolan government and Home Affairs,” he said. “We feel very disappointed.”
At a meeting between Home Affairs, the Angolan consulate and UNHCR that took place on 6 September, UNHCR advocated for the Angolan government to speed up the issuing of passports and for the South African government to give refugees awaiting their passports or decisions on exemption applications some kind of transitional status that would not leave them undocumented.
“The government is considering these options and how they could be adopted within the existing legal frameworks,” said UNHCR spokesperson Tina Ghelli.
Repeated efforts by IRIN to get the Department of Home Affairs to comment on the issue were unsuccessful.