The first two months of 2012 saw asylum-seekers in Cape Town being denied their rights and treated horribly at the Maitland Refugee Reception Centre. Although services have never been very good, there was a clear deterioration in January and February.
On Wednesday, 25 January, a 35-year old Bangladeshi man collapsed and died while waiting to apply for asylum at the center. Officers were notified of the man being ill, but refused to allow him to move to the front of the line and therefore receive medical attention sooner. The next day, Thursday January 26, a young man from Zimbabwe was beaten by security guards while waiting to be assisted in the application process. When he tried to press criminal charges against his assaulters, the Maitland police would not let him do so. Only after PASSOP paralegals launched an official complaint with the Provincial Police Commissioner and the Internal Complaints Directive (ICD) was the man allowed to file his charge several days later.
Over the past four weeks the most pressing issue has been that virtually no newcomers are being allowed to apply for asylum. All that do not have a so-called ‘border pass’ were prohibited from lodging their application. Similar situations have developed at Reception Centres in Durban and Pretoria. These border passes are in theory supposed to be issued to people at the border as they enter the country, but this is rarely the case. Whether this is a deliberate action or just miscommunication between Immigration and Home Affairs is a ground for speculation, but what it means is that newcomers are stuck in limbo, because virtually none of them are able to get a border pass (and thus apply for asylum).
PASSOP maintains that the requirement of the border pass is unlawful, and together with the Legal Resource Center, we are an applicant in an ongoing court case against the DHA concerning this issue. While we await the court date the regulation remains in place, however, and it has spawned an array of hawkers and even security guards to illegally sell the forged border passes to desperate asylum seekers for R1000-R1500. However, most who wait outside the Refugee Center do not trust these counterfeit documents, or have the money to purchase them, and are for weeks now already forced to live without documentation.
During a recent monitoring visit by PASSOP members, a number of other unacceptable circumstances were noted. People, including pregnant women and children, had been sleeping outside the center in order to secure a place in the beginning of the line and be assisted earlier in the day. Some of the women had sick children, but could not take them to the hospital without the necessary documentation they were waiting for.
The lack of order in the system has for years plagued the effectiveness of the Centre. The system needs to undergo serious change to improve the efficiency and quality of service given to the people who come seeking help. Thus far, the DHA has refused the input and assistance of civil society in implementing an improved system that gets rid of the chaos and therefore minimizes the risk of corruption and violence at the Centers. We will launch a renewed effort in the coming weeks and months to work constructively with the DHA to improve the service delivery at the Maitland Refugee Reception Centre, while at the same time working hard to help newcomers realize their right to apply for asylum.