South Africa gets 45,673 asylum seekers in 2007, warns of rising numbers

South Africa received nearly 46,000 new applications for asylum during 2007 and warns that the numbers could increase sharply in the coming years.

A Zimbabwean refugee sells hard-boiled eggs to hundreds of asylum seekers at the Refugee Reception Office in Pretoria.   © UNHCR/P.Rulashe

PRETORIA, South Africa, February 26 (UNHCR) - South Africa received nearly 46,000 new applications for asylum during 2007 and warned that the numbers could increase sharply in the coming years.

In its annual report on applications for refugee status during the previous year, the Department of Home Affairs said only 5,879 of the 45,673 new applications were decided in 2007, leaving 39,758 still to be processed. They join 49,275 applications from 2006 that are also awaiting a decision, leaving over 89,000 applications from the two years still to be processed.

"The influx observed throughout 2006 suggested that a massive population of people seeking asylum might increase in years to come although the majority are economic migrants as most of their claims are not aligned with the basic principles for asylum," said the government report.

Although last year's figure was down from the 53,361 applications in 2006, the report bluntly said the government asylum reception offices faced long lines and did not have the capacity to handle all applicants. The highest number of applicants came in the last quarter of 2007.

"Certain people foresee the number registered in 2007 escalating to a possible double in 2008, treble in 2009 and even quadruple in 2010," the report said. It warned that the 2010 Football World Cup could draw people from around Africa and that "multifaceted unrest related to politics, hunger, poverty, etc" in Africa and Asia could fuel a mass influx of people seeking asylum in South Africa.

"In addition, human trafficking and smuggling are likely to increase as trafficked people will end up seeking asylum as their last resort. Seen from that angle, it is impossible for the number of asylum seekers to decline substantially," the report said.

The largest group by far, as in 2006, came from those leaving neighbouring Zimbabwe. The top five countries of origin were: Zimbabwe (17,667 applicants); Democratic Republic of the Congo (5,582 applicants); Ethiopia (3,413 applicants); Malawi (3,341 applicants); and Somalia (2,041 applicants).

Most applicants came from across the African continent, but asylum seekers arrived from 54 countries around the world, with 1,982 from Bangladesh and 918 from Pakistan.

South Africa, with the most dynamic economy on the continent and a liberal policy toward asylum seekers, has been a magnet for both refugees and economic migrants seeking to improve their lives. Unlike many other countries in Africa, South Africa does not operate refugee camps and asylum seekers are free to work while their cases are considered.

Among the 5,879 asylum cases decided by government officers in 2007, some 29 percent of applicants received refugee status and 71 percent of cases were rejected. The rate of recognition varied widely between different offices, with only 73 cases accepted and 1,705 rejected in Pretoria but 1,087 accepted and 883 rejected in Cape Town.

The government report admitted it had problems in handling the volume of applications but noted it is increasing its capacity. A separate backlog project that was set up two years ago to clear tens of thousands of asylum applications made prior to 2006 is expected to conclude by the end of this March.

"The issue of backlogs in timeously [sic] receiving new applications and responsibly adjudicating them can never be separated from critical factors relating to not only the use of obsolete information systems and deteriorated infrastructures but also the lack of reception and status determination capacity at refugee reception offices," the government report said. It added that efforts to expand the operational structures of refugee reception offices and increase status determination capacity were under way.

The UN refugee agency works closely with the South African government on its handling of asylum applications, monitoring the procedures to ensure they conform to international standards and assisting in the training of additional staff to handle the surging numbers.

"South Africa has to deal with a huge number of applications for refugee status and is obviously facing tremendous problems," said Sanda Kimbimbi, the UNHCR regional representative for southern Africa. "It is comforting to know that determined efforts are being made to address these problems."

By Jack Redden in Pretoria, South Africa