The poorest would be the hardest hit by the closing of the Refugee Reception Office in Port Elizabeth at the end of this month, said a representative of the local immigrant community, as NGOs warned the move would put unbearable pressure on the remaining refugee facilities.
Social movements and refugee organisations received with shock the news that the Refugee Reception Office in Sidon Road, Port Elizabeth, would close at the end of this month.and that no new applications for asylum would be accepted after 21 October.
In his weekly media briefing last Thursday, Home Affairs Director General Mkhuseli Apleni said, "In compliance with [the judgment in a court action] brought by local businesses in the vicinity of the Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office against the Department, we [will temporarily suspend] operations in the province with regard to the processing of applications from asylum seekers."
The department's national spokesperson, Ronnie Mamoepa, told Grocott's Mail that businesses in the area around the offices had applied for the office to be closed down because the resulting number of people in its vicinity constituted a nuisance.
Ronnie Ullah of the Bangladeshi Community Forum in Grahamstown said the centre's closure would make it difficult for foreigners, because some of them were poor and could not afford the travelling costs.
"Unfortunately there is nothing we can do, because the decision has already been taken - but our main concern is the poor people," Ullah said. "I think they should give a six-month extension for asylum seekers."
In a joint media statement after the department's announcement, a coalition of organisations offering services to refugees and asylum-seekers expressed their dissatisfaction over the manner in which the department had handled the matter.
"Like us, the department has been fully aware for more than a year of the court action undertaken by businesses around the Sidon Road centre. They have also known for some time that their lease was due to expire, so claiming that they missed the deadline to inform the Department of Public Works, is simply not an acceptable excuse," read the statement.
The PE office was the only RRO in the province, they said, pointing out that many thousands of refugees from the Eastern Cape, as well as the Free State, Northern Cape and Southern Cape, were serviced by the PE centre.
"It [the closure] will put unbearable pressure on these already overburdened refugee reception offices who have been struggling to cope since the closure of the Johannesburg Office."
The organisations, which include the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation (Hivos) Eastern Cape Refugee and Migrant Programme; the Project for Conflict Resolution and Development; the Somali Association of South Africa (Eastern Cape); the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Refugee Rights Centre; Social Change Assistance Trust and the Black Sash, had been invited to a formal briefing in mid-October about the permanent closure of the office next Wednesday.
There they were told that the office was closing partly because Port Elizabeth was not strategically located to help people wanting to apply for asylum, and also because businesses in the vicinity were complaining.
In his statement, Apleni said, "In this regard, arrangements have been made for the temporary housing of files of those already granted refugee status in an annex to the local Regional Office. Staff from the Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office, who are also being temporarily housed in the annex, are currently finalising the adjudication of existing applications from asylum seekers. Where applicants are based outside of the Eastern Cape, files may be transferred to alternative centres."
The NGOs, in turn, raised the following critical problems:
* Clients could not be told in time for them to make other plans;
* New applicants and existing permit holders must now travel long distances;
* It wasn't clear what system was in place to inform applicants and permit holders as to which office their file would be sent, and what guarantee there was that these would not be misplaced.