‘If they see you, you are money’: Refugees highlight the difficulty of the system when using the legal route

Fallacies, bribes and violence: how a broken system is impeding migrants becoming naturalised South Africans

Immigrants and asylum seekers say the process of getting legal documentation often involves having to pay bribes for assistance.

Aaden Abdi*, a Somali, told TimesLIVE it was difficult to make headway without the help of an “agent” and a bribe.

“No-one will help you,” he said, adding there appeared to be no choice other than paying a bribe to get his documents.

“If I try to apply online no-one will help me. I pay money and I get it. My father is sick in Somalia and I want a passport. I can’t go without a passport, so I don’t have a choice.

“Home affairs has a big problem. My start was in Cape Town and it is the same in Pretoria. When you want to enter you must talk to the agent. You can’t go without an agent. Security asked for money in my own language. When I entered the security guard asked what I wanted. I showed him I had an appointment and he lied and said I was late. I came on time. He said I was late and asked for R100. I gave it to him, I didn’t have a choice,” he said.

Aaden Omar* from Somalia had a similar story: “If they see you, you are money.”

He said the “agents” had connections inside.

“When you want to apply for passports, these people are charging R5,000 or R3,000 and sometimes R4,000. You give the money to the agent. They will apply for you and give the guys their share. The agent works together with the officials.”

Asked how one found an agent, he said: “Everybody knows the agents.”

He had to pay R1,000 to obtain asylum.

“I paid R1,000 but now I cannot apply for a passport. I can’t go home to see my mother. I haven’t seen her in eight years. I don’t have R5,000 to apply for a passport but I have my asylum. If I go to home affairs they will chase me away. It feels bad.”  

Omar appealed to government to rectify the “corrupt” system at home affairs.

“It’s bad. If you want to enter, even the security guard will ask you for money. To go  inside it is R100 or R50. From the gate to the office the money will increase.

“I came to SA in 2013. When I got inside home affairs the security guard asked me for money, I didn’t  know what R50 was. I just gave him money. When I got inside, when they were about to print my papers, an official asked me for R1,000 in my language. I don’t know who taught him,” he said.

Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) advocacy co-ordinator Abigail Dawson said despite the progressive nature of the Refugees Act in granting protection to people seeking asylum, being undocumented was not a choice.

“IThe asylum system has been in crisis for some time. The spokesperson for the department of home affairs said in a newspaper report regarding the regulations that the department is open to people coming into the country provided they do so using the appropriate channels. What happens when these channels don’t exist?”

She said an existing backlog had been compounded by the closure of refugee reception offices (RROs) in response to Covid-19.

“A worrying sign for where we stand in the coming years.”

Dawson said though the development of an online system was needed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and created an avenue for the regularisation of permits while keeping people safe from infection, it had created challenges:

  • An avenue for corruption and exploitation of refugees and asylum seekers. JRS had clients who said internet café’s were charging people R50 to R250 to renew their permits.
  • Other services RROs provided did not continue, including family joining and separation services, essential in circumstances such as when a women in an abusive relationship was joined to her husband’s refugee or asylum status. The woman was dependent on her husband for the regularisation of her status.

She said people arriving in SA as refugees had been unable to apply for asylum while RROs were closed. 

“This means new arrivals are undocumented and at risk of detention, deportation and exploitation,” she said.

Fear about Dudula

Many people expressed concern about “Dudula demonstrations” which caused fear and frustration.

The movement, which started in Soweto last year and spread to inner Johannesburg and Hillbrow, is aimed at rooting out illegal foreigners.

Tensions flared in Alexandra when community members operating under the Dudula Movement umbrella, which is separate from Operation Dudula, called for the removal of illegal immigrants operating businesses in the area.

Soon after police were in Alexandra, Johannesburg and Soweto to arrest undocumented immigrants.

Abdi said it is difficult to fight back against the anti-foreign sentiments.

“South Africans say foreigners are enjoying. We are not enjoying. We are scared. We can’t enjoy.”

He is afraid to work in his Uber vehicle after being threatened several times.

“Every day we are scared of when xenophobia will erupt again. We came here to do business. I know this is not my mother country but my brother’s country. I am African. We are not doing drugs,” he said.

Omar said: “I have seen the news abut Operation Dudula. I am afraid because I have a wife and a baby. My baby was born in SA. They didn’t give her a document. My wife does not have documents, but I have documents for SA. If I want to do family unification they want R15,000 from me. Where can I get that money? My wife is sitting at home. What if they catch her and deport her? This is what makes me worry.”

He pleaded with South Africans to welcome foreigners. “Do not chase us out. We are part of Africa. Help us.”

Dawson said the Dudula phenomenon was the newest iteration of historical movements that had targeted foreigners over systemic challenges in SA.

“SA  has been marked as one of the most unequal societies in the world. Socio-economic inequality is pervasive, a systemic ghost of colonial and apartheid history in SA and failings of post-1994 democracy resulting in high levels of unemployment, poverty and crime, has meant a growing working and precarious class are frustrated by daily living circumstances and disillusionment about the state.”

Dawson said there were many misconceptions about migration in SA largely based on misinformation and perceptions.

“One of the most consequential misconceptions is the number of people who are migrating to SA. This is often seen in inflammatory statistics and words, ‘flooding, burdening, overwhelming’. This kind of populist language we saw in Europe in 2015 and more recently in the US instils in people a sense of fear and need to protect what they consider theirs.

“What we know is that non-nationals in SA make up 4% to 7% of the population according to the 2011 Census and 2016 Statistics SA Community Survey. This number does not consider the about 400,000 people deported since 2012. The number of asylum applicants in SA in 2018 [8,104] is lower than in other African countries, such as Kenya and Uganda.

“Both studies show migration patterns in SA are in line with global patterns of migration and there has been no reason for a sudden ‘influx’ of people.”

Another common misconception was that migrants were a “burden” on social systems.

“People often claim migrants are exploiting social assistance grants, social housing and healthcare systems. Recognised refugees and permanent residents are the only categories of non-nationals who can access SA Social Security Agency grants. In 2018 this group of people made up 0.4% of grant recipients.”

Another misconception was that migrants were “criminals”.

“There is no evidence to show cross-border migrants are more likely to commit crimes than SA nationals. Police do not release stats on crimes committed by nationality, but 7.5% of the prison population are foreigners, almost the same as their representation in the population,” she said.

‘Foreigners enter through corruption’

Another Somali who asked not to be named said SA was one of the most corrupt countries in the world. He said it took more than one person for a corrupt environment to flourish.

“I hear people complaining about corruption, but they are the ones bribing. It takes two people to make corruption.

“All the foreigners, we came here by corruption. They came here with corruption, they paid someone to bring them here. Some came in airplanes and some on roads, but they had to bribe someone to come here. Most don’t speak English. They know how to talk with cash. Money talks,” he said.

In response to the Dudula sentiment, he said: “They are right, let them do their job. These people are lazy and don’t want to go to home affairs and look for documents. I am not scared because I am covered. I’ve got my documents. If xenophobia starts I’ve got nothing to lose.”

March in response to Dudula

Trevor Ngwane, an organiser and spokesperson for the Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia movement, said it had been formed in response to xenophobic violence against foreigners. They planned to march on Monday. 

“The aim of the march is to show our solidarity to SA-born people and those who were not born in SA with those who are under attack. We believe the attacks against immigrants from other parts of Africa are not only unfair, but are also an attack on international solidarity. It is a threat to what we have built in SA, which is a society based on democratic principles, fairness, gender equality and many other basic human rights.”

Ngwane said they chose Human Rights Day to march because they believe the rights of immigrants are human rights.

“The UN declared March 21 an international day against racism. We believe xenophobia is a form of racism. We call on all freedom-loving South Africans, especially those who live in Johannesburg, to join us for this march.”

The protesters were expected to march in central Johannesburg. Ngwane said they would be supported in Bloemfontein, Cape Town and Durban at about the same time under the same banner.

In response to an Operation Dudula march planned for the same day [March 21], he said: “According to the way authorities work they do not allow two actions on the same day at the same venue, so the only way Operation Dudula can march will be illegally. If they want to break the law, I think the police will deal with them because our march will be protected by the police. If for some reason the police are not there, I think it will be a provocation for violence, because how can they stop us from marching unless they use violence against us?

“I would like to warn everyone, born in SA or not, even members of Operation Dudula or those who approve of Operation Dudula, that violence begets violence. If you use violence against immigrants you will end up using violence against South Africans.”

Ngwane said he has received threatening telephone calls and has reported them to the police.

[The Kopanang march planned for Monday has been prohibited by Johannesburg metro police, the movement said on Friday. Organisers now hope it can take place on March 26.]Snapshot of the percentage of foreign-born people in SA.
Image: Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town

James Chapman, head of advocacy and legal adviser at the Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town, said it was difficult to obtain refugee and immigration documentation.

“Regrettably, with the state of national disaster, lockdown refugee centres are not open so one can’t apply for refugee or asylum documents. Even if somebody has applied it takes a long time to be recognised as a refugee.”

Chapman said corruption was a “two-way thing. There is a payee of the bribe and the person receiving the bribe”.

“There is corruption across the country at all refugee reception centres and outside the issuing of what are purported to be asylum or refugee documents.

“It is maybe in some ways a result of the challenges with closed offices and difficulties in accessing refugee offices. It might be a basis on which people turn to obtaining alternative or fake documentation as a means to be in the country, particularly in light of deportation and the risk of being challenged by people who have taken the law into their own hands and try to take action against migrants and refugees,” Chapman said.

He believes there needs to be a collective effort to address the intimidation of minority and vulnerable groups.

“We speak out against and condemn Dudula and similar actions. One needs to see the dignity and humanity of individuals and not see people based on their status in the country,” he said.

* Not their real names

This article was previously published on TimesLIVE

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