CoRMSA calls for recognition of positive contributions by migrants on International Migrants Day 2014
The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA, joins the international community in celebrating International Migrants Day on 18 December, recognising the positive contribution to development that migrants continue to make in South Africa and around the world.
Around 232 million people are international migrants contributing to the economies of receiving and home countries through earning, employing, spending, paying taxation and savings sent home as remittances. In SADC alone, approximately R11.2 billion is remitted annually. This contributes to poverty alleviation within our region, helping families and governments, yet migrants’ lives are precarious and they remain subject to discrimination, abuse and attacks by some within communities.
We therefore call on South Africa to sign and ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and to lobby for the entry into force of the SADC Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons. SADC should not be lagging behind west and east African regional economic communities in recognising that regional economic integration cannot be realised without enabling people to move across borders. If people are allowed to move legally, the rights of migrants are better protected and state resources are not squandered on arrests and deportations.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Director General, Ambassador William Lacy Swing said this year: “Governments should de-criminalize irregular migrants so that they can report smugglers to the police for prosecution and contribute to efforts against trans-national organized crime”. CoRMSA shares the view that enabling documentation, which ensures the rights of people to move, benefits migrants whilst ensuring that governments are able to manage the movement of people.
UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon declared on International Migrants Day 2013: “I call on people and Governments everywhere to reject xenophobia and embrace migration as a key enabler for equitable, inclusive and sustainable social and economic development. Migration is a reality of the 21st century.” CoRMSA reiterates its call for the South African government to support the inclusion of migration as a positive developmental strategy in the negotiations to replace the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
For more information please contact:
Ms Roshan Dadoo, Regional Advocacy Officer: 082 816 2799
Ms Sicel’mpilo Shange-Buthane, Executive Director: 083 257 9015
JOHANNESBURG, 11 December 2014 (IRIN) – Refugee advocates in South Africa have reacted with dismay and scepticism to a planned revamp of the asylum application process which the government says is designed to distinguish economic migrants from people with a bona fide case for refugee status.
“The granting of asylum should not be contingent on an applicant’s skills, economic circumstances, employment history or number of dependants,” said Roni Amit, a senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Witwatersrand University, referring to a new 12-page asylum application form, which was published for comment in November.
The form includes detailed questions about education level, employment history and skills, including a request that applicants provide documentation in the form of testimonials and pay slips. There is also a new section on financial status that asks for details of bank accounts inside and outside South Africa and how much money the applicant has brought into the country.
The aim of such questions “is to separate economic migrants from people seeking asylum,” said Mayihlome Tshwete, the department of home affairs spokesperson.
“Our refugee system is being heavily burdened by economic migrants,” he told IRIN. “There are people who are genuinely in fear of their lives, and their applications are not getting the attention [they deserve].”
South Africa was the third most popular destination for asylum seekers in 2013 (Germany and the US took the two top spots) with 70,000 new asylum applications, according the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This was down from previous years when it was the leading destination, but it has still left the department with a significant backlog. According to UNHCR, over 86,600 cases were yet to receive a first decision by the end of 2013, while a further 145,400 were awaiting appeal decisions at the end of 2012.
However, refugee rights groups have questioned whether the new form is the best way of addressing the backlog.
Amit pointed out that under both international and domestic refugee law, asylum determinations should be based solely on establishing whether individuals face a well-founded fear of persecution or general conditions of instability in their country of origin.
She added that asylum seekers fleeing for their lives were unlikely to have taken any documentation proving their previous employment with them.
UNHCR, in a submission it is preparing to send to Home Affairs, will call for the new form to be simplified. “A lot of the information that they’ve put there is not needed to take a decision on the merits of a refugee claim,” said UNHCR spokesperson Tina Ghelli. “We feel that most asylum seekers wouldn’t be able to provide that level of detail. We’ve offered our technical guidance to help them improve the form.”
In recent years, refugee reception offices in several cities have either closed or stopped accepting new asylum applications. As a result, new asylum seekers must join long queues at the three remaining offices where they can submit claims – in Pretoria, Durban and Musina (near the border with Zimbabwe).
Asylum seekers only have five days to submit their applications after entering the country before they become undocumented and vulnerable to arrest and detention.
Amit noted that asylum seekers already struggle to fill out the existing form and that the new form is likely to increase the barriers to accessing the asylum system.
“It’s going to be much harder with translation to have to fill out this new form; I think it will be very difficult for many people to complete honestly,” agreed Roshan Dadoo, regional advocacy officer at the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA). She added that the result could be a further clogging up of the appeals process which is where most of the backlog in the system already exists.
Dadoo raised concerns about other additions to the new form, such as questions about how the applicant entered South Africa, whether they received any assistance and who they travelled with.
“It looks as though they’re aimed at trying to identify smuggling operations,” she told IRIN, adding that naming travelling companions could prejudice those individuals’ asylum claims.
Home Affairs spokesperson Tshwete insisted that the capturing of additional information through the new form would help reduce abuse of the system. “We’ve discovered that only 5 percent of applicants are actually asylum seekers,” he said. “The best thing to help the backlog is to get economic migrants out of the system. We need to encourage [them] to apply for work permits from their country of origin.”
The figure that 95 percent of asylum applicants are actually economic migrants is based on South Africa’s rejection rates which hover between 85 and 97 percent, significantly higher than the global average of 68 percent, according to UNHCR.
Status determination process flawed?
But Amit, who has researched South Africa’s refugee status determination process extensively, argued that “the rejection rate in no way presents an accurate reflection of who is in the asylum system because the status determination process is so flawed.”
“An individual’s actual asylum claim has almost no relationship to the decision he or she will actually get… So while 95 percent of people are rejected, that doesn’t mean that 95 percent of them don’t have valid asylum claims.”
She added that the new questions about skills, education and financial situation also have no bearing on whether or not someone is a genuine asylum seeker, “as an asylum seeker can be rich or poor, educated or uneducated, highly skilled or not…
“It seems more likely that what it will do is just weed out the poor, unskilled asylum seekers, who will just get labelled as economic migrants regardless of any asylum claim they may have.”
It remains unclear to what extent the Home Affairs Department will take on board the comments from UNHCR, ACMS and other refugee rights groups before implementing the new form, or how refugee status determination officers will be instructed to use the new information it captures. “If you’re a genuine asylum seeker, your economic situation won’t matter [in terms of adjudication],” said Tshwete.
However, both Amit and Dadoo expressed concerns about how information that falls outside the legal criteria for determining refugee status would be used.
“Why would you ask for that information unless you needed it for the matter at hand?” asked Dadoo.
Countries in the region should offer asylum to refugees who are fleeing the repressive state and dying at alarming rates in the Mediterranean Sea.
This was the call by the Southern African Development Community Council of Nongovernmental Organisations (SADC-CNGOs) that met with representatives from Eritrea in Johannesburg last week.
Figures show that Eritreans make up the highest number of Africans who die while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in fateful attempts to flee the repressive regime in their county.
A study by the International Organisation for Migration, titled “Fatal Journeys: Tracking lives lost during migration”, estimates that more than 3 000 people have died this year trying to cross over the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Eritreans are the biggest group from Africa and second only to Syrians as a percentage of the total number of migrants dying in the sea.
Speaking at the end of a two-day workshop with representatives of the Eritrean diaspora, Abie Dithlake, executive director of the SADC-CNGOs, said countries in Southern Africa should reach out to support those suffering elsewhere on the continent.
SADC member states such as South Africa, which plays an important role in the African Union (AU), should also put pressure on the AU to adhere to sanctions against the Asmara regime.
Repression in the Horn of Africa country has been well documented in numerous United Nations reports and those from human rights organisations.
Human Rights Watch, for example, states that “torture, arbitrary detention and severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association and religious freedom remain routine in Eritrea”.
Eritrea has ranked last in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index for the past seven years.
“We are aware of resolutions by the AU, but leaders are not making the necessary efforts to enforce them,” said Dithlake.
He said NGOs should put pressure on governments to grant political asylum to Eritreans to enable them to organise in countries like South Africa.
Kuluberhan Abraham, a member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, who lives in South Africa, says there are between 5 000 and 6 000 Eritreans living in South Africa, but only a small percentage of them have managed to obtain refugee status.
According to figures from the UN High Commission for Refugees, 821 Eritreans were granted refugees status in South Africa last year. This is compared with up to 24 000 Somalis with refugee status and 15 000 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the estimated figures.
Activists at the SADC-CNGOs meeting said Eritreans are increasingly being considered as “economic refugees” in the same category as those from poor African countries, but whose lives aren’t necessarily in danger back home. This is especially true in Europe where Eritreans have been arriving in large numbers.
Not economic refugees
Andebrhan Giorgis, a former Eritrean ambassador who now lives in Belgium and heads an NGO called Revival Africa Initiative, says this is a wrong perception of Eritreans. “They are not economic refugees but political refugees. As soon as the situation improves they will return home.”
One of the main issues that drives young Eritrean males out of the country is compulsory military service, which was initially restricted to 18 months, but has been gradually prolonged and “amounts to indentured labour”, says Giorgis.
Boys from the age of 15 and 16 are called up for this military duty and the final school year, grade 12, is completed in the military camps, according to a statement by the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights.
The organisation says there are many documented cases of Eritrean refugees who have fled to other countries but were sent back home from places such as Malta, Sudan or Libya. Upon their return they were held in harsh detention centres and mistreated.