'They treat us like dogs' - asylum seekers describe Desmond Tutu refugee reception centre

File photo of refugees queuing for asylum permits at Pretoria's home Affairs Department.
File photo of refugees queuing for asylum permits at Pretoria's home Affairs Department.
Image: Antonio Muchave/Sowetan

Asylum seekers at the Desmond Tutu refugee reception centre in Marabastad‚ Pretoria‚ say it is a living hell to come to the facility as they are subjected to ill-treatment and demands for bribes.

One of the asylum seekers‚ who spoke to the publication through a fence at the facility‚ said they even fall victim to thievery.

"We were waiting outside and somebody came and took everything from us‚" he said.

Inside the centre‚ they face pressure to hand over cash to rude officials.

"They treat us like dogs. They have disrespect for us. If you don't have money then you don't get asylum. You have to pay every day (you come here). If you don't give money‚ you don't get asylum. It is five weeks I'm coming here and no asylum‚" said the man‚ originally from Bangladesh.

The man‚ who runs a shop in Bloemfontein‚ has had to sacrifice time from his business to come and renew his asylum papers as they expire on Tuesday.

Many refugees were queuing behind a fence at the facility. They said they were not allowed to leave. Some came from as far as Kimberly to request an extension on their asylum status in South Africa.

The reporter was at the facility during a visit by Democratic Alliance provincial leader John Moody. Initially‚ he was told by security guards that he could not enter‚ despite advising them he was a member of the Gauteng legislature. A scuffle broke out between him and the guards‚ which was only resolved when a senior official came to calm the situation. Finally‚ Moody was allowed in but no journalists could accompany him.

"My experience here is that people were being held like cattle. People are intimidated. It is as If they are here at the mercy of these officials.

"I will definitely be writing to the the national department (of Home Affairs) and get assistance from my colleagues in Parliament for us to address the circumstances over here‚" Moody said.

Also on Monday‚ DA MP Haniff Hoosen visited the Durban refugee reception office‚ which he said is one of the offices worst affected by the closure of the Cape Town and Port Elizabeth reception offices.

The oversight visit followed reports the party had received stating that the Durban reception office is currently fully booked and unable to schedule appointments for new applications until August.

"This means that any new asylum seekers needing and wanting to declare their presence and regularise their stay in South Africa‚ by reporting to this office‚ will remain undocumented if they cannot afford to travel to Musina or Pretoria‚" explained Hoosen.

He commented: "The department’s ineffectiveness at processing asylum applications could contribute to an increase in illegal immigration."

In Durban too‚ the issue of bribes being "openly and routinely demanded from applicants to be issued their documentation" was highlighted.

Hoosen said the DA has written to minister Malusi Gigaba to ask him about the steps his department is taking to re-open refugee offices in the two Cape cities.

In September 2017‚ the Supreme Court of Appeal found that the decision to close the Cape Town refugee reception office was irrational and therefore ought to be reviewed and set aside. The department’s appeal to the Constitutional Court was dismissed in December 2017 and it was ordered to re-open the Cape Town office by March 31.

"Not only has the Department failed to comply with this order but it has also failed to comply with another 2015 order to re-open the Port Elizabeth refugee reception office."

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