Applying for Refugee Status

There are many people in South Africa who come from many different places in the world for many different reasons. In order to get a job, go to the clinic or hospital or study you need to have documents to show that you are legally in the country. If you have come to South Africa on holiday or for a job, you need to have a visa. If you came to South Africa because you were forced to leave your country, you might qualify for refugee status.

The following are answers to frequently asked questions.* If you want more information, please call our office at 021 762 0322. Or, we have produced a handy guide to the Refugee Act (1998) that outlines the rights of refugees and their protections, as well as grounds for the removal of refugee status.

What is ‘refugee status’?

‘Refugee status’ means that a person has the protection of the South African government and can not be forced to return home until such time as it is deemed to be safe to go back. ‘Refugee status’ is designed to assist people whose lives have been in danger in their own country. If you get ‘refugee status’ you can access most of the same rights as South African citizens except the right to vote.

Who can apply for refugee status?

According to South African law, people can qualify for refugee status if they can present evidence that their lives have been in danger due to being persecuted in their own countries because of their

1        Race

2        Tribe

3        Religion

4        Nationality

5        Political opinion

6        Membership of a particular social group (people persecuted on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender – such as female circumcision – fall into this category).

A person can also be granted refugee status if there is war in their country. If you apply for refugee status, you need to show how your life was in danger because of these reasons and why it would be dangerous for you to go back home.

How do I apply for refugee status in South Africa?

If you have left your country because of persecution and fear for your life if you were to return there then you can apply for refugee status at one of the five Refugee Reception Offices. These are located in Pretoria (Marabastad), Johannesburg (Crown Mines), Durban (Greyville), Cape Town (Maitland) and Port Elizabeth (North End). First you need to get an asylum seekers permit from a Refugee Reception Office. This is proof that you have applied for refugee status and are legally in the country. There are often long queues outside these offices so it helps to arrive very early in the morning. It is likely to take a number of visits before you can get into the offices because there are so many people there. Until you get into the Refugee Reception Office and receive your permit, you may still be arrested by the police or immigration officials. You must tell them that you have been trying to apply for refugee status and they must assist you to do this.

What happens when I get into the Refugee Reception Office?

Once you access the refugee office, you are likely to have what is called a first interview. During the interview you should be assisted by a Refugee Reception Officer (RRO) to complete the Eligibility Determination Form. In the process you will have to respond to questions including:

1        Your name

2        Your nationality

3        Your ethnic group

4        Your religion

5        The number of people in your family

6        Whether you have any identity or travel documents

7        If you have been to South Africa before

8        Education and work experience

9        Whether you have done military service

10     A brief statement of the reasons as to why you left your country

11     A brief description of your country and place of residence

12     Name of organisations/political parties that you have been a member of

The answers you give in this interview are very important as the Home Affairs officials will use these to decide whether you qualify for refugee status or not. Later on, you will have a second interview and the officials will look to see that your story is still the same.

Once you complete the application form with the Refugee Reception Officer, your fingerprints will be taken. A file will be created for you and with this you receive a case number and a file number. It is very important that you write down these numbers in case you lose your permit papers.

What documents do I get to show that I have applied for refugee status?

Once you have filled in the application form and had your fingerprints taken, you will be issued with a ‘Section 22 permit (also known as an ‘asylum seeker permit’). Home Affairs might either issue the permit on the same day that you filled the application form or might ask you to return at a later date to collect your permit. This permit does not recognise you as a refugee. This is just proof that you have applied for refugee status. If you do not understand something about your permit, ask the Home Affairs official to explain it to you as that is their duty. Make sure you sign your permit and keep this on you at all times. Also make a copy and keep it in a safe place.

What rights does this Section 22 permit give me?

Once you have a section 22 permit, you are entitled to most of the same rights as South African citizens except the right to vote. You can work, study and go to the clinics or hospitals in the same way South African citizens can.

Once I have my Section 22 permit, what must I do?

Section 22 permits are often valid for three or six months at a time. This means that you have to regularly renew your permit until you are asked to return for the second interview. You should know that this might take many months.

What happens at the second interview?

The second interview is called the Status Determination hearing and is conducted by someone called a Refugee Status Determination Officer (RSDO). During this interview the RSDO will look at the application form you filled in at the first interview and try to determine whether you qualify for refugee status. The RSDO may ask questions to verify your identity and the country that you claim you are from. You may be asked about streets, languages, cultures, opinion leaders, historical events, etc.

At this interview, you have the right to be accompanied by a legal representative and an interpreter of your choice. However, the representative is not allowed to intervene in the interview; he or she can only observe. You are also allowed to bring witnesses, affidavits from witnesses or any other evidence that might be important to your case. It can be a good idea to find whatever information you can on the Internet or other places that might have evidence to support your claim.

Once you have finished this interview, make sure that your asylum seeker permit is renewed and stamped. The RSDO will give you a date when you have to go back to the refugee office to get a decision on your application. This might take 60 days or more. If you are not sure of this date, ask the RSDO!

How do I find out if my application for refugee status has been approved or rejected?

When you return to the refugee office to renew your permit after your second interview, they may have already made a decision about your application. They will then give you a letter telling you that your application for refugee status has either been approved or rejected. If they have not yet made a decision on your application, renew your permit as usual and return again when it is about to expire and maybe they will have made a decision by then.

What happens if I get refugee status?

If your asylum application is approved, you will be given a “Section 24 permit” (also known as a “Refugee Permit”) which officially recognises you as a refugee in South Africa. This permit is valid for a period of two years and you must renew this permit three months before it expires.

Once you have been declared or recognised as a refugee, you are also entitled to apply for a refugee identity document and a travel document. A refugee identity document is a maroon booklet that will have your picture and details in. You need this to apply for your United Nations Convention Travel Document, which takes the place of your passport.

Why do I need a travel document? Can I just use my passport from my country?

No. When you apply or refuge status in South Africa you are saying that you cannot return to your country because you fear for your life. If you travel on your passport from your country and you have a problem in a foreign country, they will deport you back to your country where you will face the problem that you fled from.

Can I use this United Nations travel document to visit my country?

No. If you use the travel document to travel back to your country of origin, this will be interpreted to mean that you can be protected by your country and you could lose your refugee status.

If you have not been issued with a refugee ID and there is an emergency situation that requires you to travel, you will need to contact a legal counsellor or the UNHCR in Pretoria directly. 

What can I do if my application for refugee status has been rejected and I have been given a ‘must leave’ letter?

If your asylum application is rejected, this means that the DHA does not recognise you as a refugee. You will receive a letter stating that you must leave the country or file an appeal usually within 30 days of being told of the rejection. Depending on the reasons for the rejection of your application, you will need to appeal to the Refugee Appeal Board or the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs. If you think that you do qualify for refugee status it would be a good idea to seek legal advice from an organisation such as Lawyers for Human Rights or the UCT Law Clinic.

Why does it say on my permit that my application is ‘manifestly unfounded’?

If your decision is rejected as being manifestly unfounded, abusive or fraudulent, it will be automatically reviewed by the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs. You will not be able to appear in person in front of this committee; however, you can provide a written statement or comments saying why you disagree with the negative decision. This needs to be submitted to the refugee office which handed you the rejection letter or to the Standing Committee directly. You can get a legal counsellor to help you with this if you wish.

If your application is rejected for other reasons (such as being unfounded), then you will have to appeal to the Refugee Appeal Board. This process is described below.

How can I appeal against the rejection of my application for refugee status?

The Refugee Appeal Board is an independent tribunal which offers asylum seekers, who have their applications rejected, a second chance to prove their claims. It is important to seek legal assistance in preparing for your appeal. This usually includes a written statement where you argue why your claim should be approved. There are a number of NGOs that offer free legal assistance to asylum seekers with their appeals.

The appeal must be handed in to the refugee reception office where you received your letter of rejection. In turn, this office hands over the case to the Refugee Appeal Board. The Board will call you for an oral hearing where you once again are given the opportunity to present your case and reasons for applying for asylum. You will get your appointment for the oral hearing at the Refugee Reception Office when you go there to extend your asylum seeker permit. Note that you cannot phone to receive this information.

It is important for you to be clear about the reasons why you left your country as well as the reasons why your life would be in danger if you were to return. This information is more important in this hearing than whether you have a job here or not or whether you are currently studying in South Africa.

When you have finished your appeal hearing, you should expect a decision by the Refugee Appeal Board within 90 days. In the meantime, you must continue to renew your asylum seeker permit and ensure that it remains valid. You are still allowed to work and study as before until such time as you are required to leave the country.


This information was compiled and written by our partner organisation, C-O-R-M-S-A.

8 responses to “Applying for Refugee Status

  1. The Standing Committee for Refugee affairs once to withdraw my refugee status citing significant change in Zim.Can the Zim situation be said to be normal and safe now for all to return home???Pliz help with arguments to the contrary.Thanx

  2. Hi,
    Is there any Legal UN time limit subjugated to the country you seek assylum in to respect and withing which all these decision should made. The reason why i ask this question is because i have been given a section 22 assylum permit for more than 6 years now just to be told that i have to appeal because they just made a rejection decision on my case. Is that legal? is there any UN law determining what’s the due period of time for a country to even establish or elaborate such decisions to an assylum seeker, or the south african government has a special previlege to determine so whenever they see fit? why do they take 6 long years before they can establish if a person whould be rejected or admitted as refugee in SA? Is there any local or international law their decision 6 period is based on?Another question… the law regarding refugees are they voted by the local country or by the UN and therefore submitted to whatever country recognised worthy to shelter refugee, to follow and never violate?

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