Outrage over closure of EC's only refugee office - DAILY DISPATCH 26 Oct 2011

ASYLUM seekers in the Eastern Cape have been left "stranded" following the closure of the only office in the province that deals with applications for refugee status. Fears have been raised that the move could see a dramatic escalation in the number of illegal foreign nationals, as new asylum seekers must, from the end of next month, travel to Home Affairs refugee reception offices in Cape Town, Durban or Pretoria.

It is unlikely refugees would be able to afford the travelling costs, according to bodies like the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Refugee Rights Centre. Human rights bodies and organisations representing foreign nationals have lambasted the "out of the blue" decision by the director-general of home affairs, Mkuseli Apleni, to close the refugee reception office in Port Elizabeth.

It had long queues daily as asylum seekers tried to attain refugee status or renew temporary stay permits. Rights organisations, including the Eastern Cape Refugee and Migrant Programme, the Project for Conflict Resolution and Development, the Somali Association of South Africa, the Social Change Assistance Trust, the Black Sash, and the Refugee Rights Centre, slammed the move. "We are shocked, distressed and disappointed over the home affairs department's abrupt and unexpected decision to permanently close the Port Elizabeth refugee reception office at the end of November," a joint statement read. "As organisations intimately involved in the protection and support of refugees and asylum seekers, we find it completely unacceptable that all stakeholders were not consulted. "We were only informed late last week that no new applications for asylum would be accepted after [last] Friday."

Yesterday, department spokesman Ricardo Abrams said an alternative office would be opened in December to deal with existing refugee and asylum cases. New applicants, however, would have to travel to already busy refugee offices in Pretoria, Cape Town or Durban. The closure of the office was because the department "was unable to extend the current lease agreement due to the unwillingness of the landlord", Abrams said.