Hundreds of undocumented migrants are queuing for weeks and even months outside the Home Affairs department's office in Marabastad, Pretoria, in the hope of obtaining some form of legal status in South Africa.
The conditions the migrants endure appear worse than those in squatter camps: the pavements have become their makeshift homes, cardboard boxes are used for beds, their meagre possessions are hung on the security fencing and there are no sanitation facilities.
Although most are from Zimbabwe, they come from everywhere in southern Africa and sometimes even farther afield, but all are sustained by the hope of a better life, should their applications prove successful.
In a politically charged environment, Zimbabwe is suffering its worst recession since it won independence from Britain in 1980: inflation has topped 13,000 percent, international donor organisations say a quarter of the population requires emergency food aid, and shortages of fuel and electricity are commonplace.
|We are here because of the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe - they are the same problem, one is a result of the other - so why should we not get asylum|
"We are here because of the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe - they are the same problem, one is a result of the other - so why should we not get asylum?" a Zimbabwean, who gave his name only as William, told IRIN. Like many others in the queue, he was confident of obtaining an asylum seeker's permit.
"It is only getting worse [in Zimbabwe], and if you come back next week there will be more people here. If we are given a legal status then people cannot take advantage of us, rob us or put us in prison," he reasoned.
Until the refugees have lodged an asylum seeker's application, they are considered illegal, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, the National Coordinator of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Project of Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), told IRIN.
Only 79 applications for asylum have been approved this year, Ramjathan-Keogh said, but if an application is successful the asylum seeker is permitted to live and work in South Africa, and that is why people are willing to endure the conditions at Marabastad.
Home Affairs has reduced its refugee reception centres from five to four by closing its office in the Johannesburg suburb of Rosettenville, leaving only three others, in the port cities of Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth.
The increased demand placed on Marabastad is therefore two-fold: it is the reception centre nearest the border and, since the Johannesburg centre has fallen away, it is handling most of the upswing in migrants from Zimbabwe.
Logjams feeding corruption
Processing an asylum seeker's permit can take up to seven years as a consequence of the Home Affairs department's "very poor resources, management and capacity", Ramjathan-Keogh said.
If an asylum seeker's application is unsuccessful the refugee can appeal, but if this appeal is lost, the person has 30 days to leave the country, although Home Affairs "rarely" follows up to ensure that the failed applicant has complied with the order, she said.
Although LHR believes South Africa's Refugee Act is well constructed, the organisation instituted legal action two years ago against the Minister of Home Affairs, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, to "streamline and deal with applications speedily".
The court ordered an investigation into the state of affairs in South Africa's refugee system, and the minister recently received this report. The case is continuing.
The Act stipulates that applications by asylum seekers must be processed within 180 days, "but this rarely ever happens" Ramjathan-Keogh said, and the delays have fed corruption and bribery in the system. "Chaos does work to certain people's advantage," she commented.
Photo: Bill Corcoran/IRIN
|A place to wash|
A recent report by the Pretoria-based Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF) on the plight of refugees at Marabastad alleged that they were being subjected to rape, robbery and muggings by local gangs, and exploitation by police and Home Affairs officials.
"Bribe costs range from R300 (US$41) to R1,500 ($205) to obtain immigration papers, which may in the end be counterfeit, and the same amounts are also demanded by corrupt police officers, should illegal immigrants seek to avoid arrest and deportation," alleged the ZEF's report, which was compiled from extensive interviews of migrants at Marabastad. The home affairs department has committed itself to eradicating corruption among its officials.
The ZEF is urging the South African government to provide people queuing with drinking water, food, shelter, healthcare and education facilities, and in a recent statement Home Affairs said Marabastad would be upgraded, with "the provision of additional toilet facilities" and "the erection of temporary structures".
|Even though there is a river nearby, I am afraid to go and wash during the day because of the police, and at night because of the criminals, so most of the time I do not wash|
Despite the obstacles, William, 34, told IRIN he refused to give up hope and would see it through to the end, even though very few permits are issued each week. "People are afraid to leave the queue in case they miss their chance. Also, the police warn us that if we stray from these places we will be arrested for being illegal [immigrants].
"Even though there is a river nearby, I am afraid to go and wash during the day because of the police, and at night because of the criminals, so most of the time I do not wash. The situation here is not good, but life at home is impossible," he said.
Unemployment levels have reached 80 percent in Zimbabwe, making neighbouring South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse, a natural destination for thousands hoping to find work. South Africa's Deputy Foreign Minister, Aziz Pahad, conceded at a recent media briefing that Zimbabwean migration had become "a serious problem".
Scale of the problem
Since Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe launched the fast-track land-reform programme in 2000, in which white-owned commercial farmland was haphazardly redistributed to landless Zimbabweans, undermining the agro-export-based economy, the influx of migrants has risen in each successive year.
In the first six months of 2007, the International Organisation for Migration processed 117,737 people repatriated from South Africa at its facility at Beitbridge on the Zimbabwe border, about 40,000 more than in the last six months of 2006.
The surge in migration has led to increasing calls by South African political opposition parties for the creation of camps to house Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa.
The suggestion has been dismissed by Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. "South Africa is a signatory to many UN conventions. We cannot impose a refugee status on people who do not want to be refugees. We will be doing that if we set up a refugee camp," she said during a nationally televised debate on the issue.
|These are people who still want to go back to their country. They are not asylum seekers ... Asylum seekers do not jump borders; they know where to go to seek asylum. People who jump borders are economic migrants|
"These are people who still want to go back to their country. They are not asylum seekers ... Asylum seekers do not jump borders; they know where to go to seek asylum. People who jump borders are economic migrants," she said.
According to a Home Affairs statement, "Asylum seekers are granted recognised refugee status if they are able to show that they have been the victims of political, religious, gender-based, or ethnic intolerance elsewhere. Economic migrants are not among those recognised as refugees under the relevant United Nations conventions to which South Africa is a signatory."
The South African office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told IRIN that in the first quarter of 2007, only 3,100 of the 9,000 applications for asylum in South Africa had been received from Zimbabweans.
Sanda Kimbimi, the UNHCR's regional representative, said this indicated that there was not a dramatic increase in the number of Zimbabweans seeking asylum in South Africa. "While there are thousands of Zimbabweans crossing into South Africa daily, it appears that the majority of them are economic refugees only, and they are here to trade, buy goods and work before returning to their homes."
"While the decision rests with the government, the question is: 'would opening refugee camps serve any purpose?' They are not easy to manage and they have their own problems," Kimbimi said. "So, when looking at the numbers we have, they do not currently justify the need for refugee camps in South Africa."
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