UNHCR helps South Africa tackle huge asylum backlog
PRETORIA, South Africa, 27 September (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has been conducting training sessions for state officials hired as part of the South African government's drive to improve its capacity to tackle the huge backlog of asylum seekers.
Although the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), which determines who is a refugee using criteria agreed by UNHCR, has been processing more asylum cases in recent months, this increase has been outstripped by the number of new applications, which totalled 32,558 in 2004. By the start of this year, the number of pending cases had climbed to some 115,000.
The record number of pending asylum applications - far in excess of what the DHA staff could handle - prompted the government to launch a strategy that included dramatically improving its ability to tackle the backlog. UNHCR is providing training, advice and materials to support this effort to raise the capacity both of staff and their equipment.
"It is a problem for the government, which it readily admits," said UNHCR's Southern Africa regional representative, Ebrima Camara, who is based in Pretoria. "It is not something that can be solved in a few months - it's going to take a lot of resources, a lot of time."
This month UNHCR protection staff held separate week-long sessions in both Pretoria and Capetown for newly hired DHA staff to explain the procedures and broad principles of international and national refugee law, including the specifics of dealing with the asylum cases arriving in South Africa.
The government is adding more than 200 new refugee eligibility officers, most of them lawyers, to handle the individual interviews that provide the basis for deciding whether someone is a refugee.
There have been increasing concerns that individuals are making claims they know to be unfounded in the hope of accessing the benefits South Africa provides to asylum seekers and refugees. The backlog of applications has clogged up the system, making it increasingly difficult for legitimate refugees to receive the protection and assistance they deserve.
The speedy processing of the backlog, and rejection of false claims, is expected to help limit the number of dubious applications, many of which are coming from economic migrants drawn by the greater wealth and perceived job opportunities in South Africa. Formal recognition as a refugee brings access to local social services and the right to work legally.
The number of asylum applicants has grown steadily over the past decade: by the end of 2004, the cumulative total stood at about 27,000 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nearly 15,000 from Somalia, and 14,000 from Angola. They come from across the continent - 12,500 from Nigeria, 6,600 from Ethiopia and 6,000 from Zimbabwe - and from well beyond: some 12,600 Pakistanis and 10,400 Indians have also requested asylum over the past ten years.
Of the total of 27,683 people recognized as refugees by the South African authorities over the past decade, the largest numbers have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (more than 9,000), Somalia (more than 7,000) and Angola (nearly 6,000).
In addition to the training of the new staff at the DHA, UNHCR has provided computer equipment to strengthen the refugee registration system and given advice on how to improve the standard of data-handling.
It will take time to clear the backlog and raise the credibility of the overloaded asylum system, which the current UNHCR training is helping to tackle. That effort is likely to remain at the heart of the relationship between UNHCR and the government of South Africa.
"This is definitely the biggest challenge facing UNHCR in South Africa," said Camara. "The Minister of Home Affairs, Mrs Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, has been very open about her political commitment to improve the performance of her ministry and wants our support. This is going to continue to be very much our common goal."
The issues surrounding the backlog were discussed at a meeting today between Mrs Mapisa-Nqakula and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres at UNHCR'S Geneva headquarters. During the meeting, Mr Guterres reiterated UNHCR's commitment to continue to support the South African government in its efforts to substantially reduce the backlog, and thereby speed up the recognition and protection of legitimate refugees arriving on South African soil.
By Jack Redden in Pretoria, South Africa