Black Sash Media Statements

Joint Media Statement - Closure of Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office - Monday, 24 October 2011

Joint Media Statement on behalf of the HIVOS Eastern Cape Refugee and Migrant Programme; Project for Conflict Resolution and Development; Somali Association of South Africa (Eastern Cape), Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Refugee Rights Centre, Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT) and the Black Sash.

For Immediate Release: Monday, 24 October 2011

We are shocked, distressed and disappointed over the Department of Home Affairs’ abrupt and unexpected decision to permanently close the Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office at the end of November. 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 Friday, 21 October 2011. 

There are approximately 800 Somali’s and Ethiopians who have been waiting weeks, and in some case months, to have their applications registered. It is a disgrace that these already traumatised refugees and asylum seekers should be treated with such disregard. To close the office down so suddenly, and without proper notice or consultation, shows a complete lack of compassion and respect for the basic rights of our most vulnerable members of society.   

Home Affairs claims that the decision was made partly because “Port Elizabeth is not located strategically to assist people who want to apply for asylum”.  But many thousands of refugees from the Eastern Cape as well as the Free State, Northern Cape and Southern Cape are serviced by the PE centre. New applicants and existing permit holders from all of these provinces will now be forced to travel very long distances, and at great expense, to Durban or Cape Town or Pretoria or Musina to have their permits issued or extended. It 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 department also claims that the PE office needs to be closed because of “on-going dissatisfaction expressed by the local business community”. But 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.   

The department urgently needs to explain how they intend letting applicants and permit holders know about which refugee reception office their file will be sent to, and what guarantees they intend putting in place to ensure that these files will not be misplaced? Also, if the files will only be sent to the other offices in the last week of November, what guarantees are there that those people whose permits expire during the first week of December, will be given an appointment at the other offices before their permit expires? 

In light of all these unanswered questions, we call on the Department of Home Affairs to grant a two week extension in order to give the PE Refugee Reception Office and other stakeholders sufficient time to deal with the large numbers of new applicants still waiting for assistance. We also ask that a temporary space be found for the centre as a matter of urgency, and clear guidelines be given as to how the files will be transferred to the other offices. We also call on the department to communicate these changes clearly with all their clients and inform them fully, and in good time, about how and when their files will be removed and transferred.  

ENDS. 

For more information and interview requests, please contact:

Mr Linton Harmse

Director: Refugee Rights Centre, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University         

041-5041310 / 073 1762239

Mr Michael Bendle

Director: Project for Conflict Resolution and Development

041-5812414 / 0834557569

Mr Dino Jilley

Somali Association of South Africa (Eastern Cape)

0735008700

Mr David Stephens

HIVOS Programme Manager Eastern Cape Refugee and Migrant Programme, Eastern Cape

041-5812414 / 0832251019

Mr Vuyo Msizi

Fieldworker: Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT)

041-5812414 / 0842422012 

Mrs Alexa Lane

Eastern Cape Provincial Director: Black Sash

041-487 3288 / 084-572 1467

NOTES TO EDITORS:

Stakeholders involved in the extension of services to refugees and asylum seekers were invited to a meeting at the Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office (RRO) on the 17th October 2011 to a formal briefing session surrounding the permanent closure of the RRO. This meeting was postponed whilst stakeholders were waiting in the reception area at the RRO at 11am on the 17th October 2011. No reasons were given for the postponement, except for a statement made by Mr. Baxter that he had been informed by Ms. Lusu, the Acting Provincial Manager, to postpone due to a more urgent matter arising, and that the stakeholders should contact her office for further information. 

Mr. Linton Harmse contacted Ms. Lusu and was informed that she would be in Port Elizabeth on Wednesday 19thOctober 2011 to deal with these matters and would be in contact with the stakeholders at this time. Stakeholders were called to a meeting on Thursday 20th October 2011 at noon at the Department of Home Affairs building in Port Elizabeth at which they were informed by Ms. Lusu that the RRO would be permanently closing on the 30th November 2011, and would discontinue all registration of new Applications for asylum from Friday 21st October 2011. A formal letter (see attached) dated the 7th October 2011 signed by Mr. Mkuseli Aplleni (sic), the Director General of Home Affairs was also made available to all stakeholders present. 

The stakeholders present were given an opportunity to respond and expressed their shock at the lack of communication not just with them, but with the most important group namely Asylum Seekers and Refugees, the RRO clients which clearly goes against the Batho Pele principals of People First.  The Stakeholders present raised a number of critical issues these were:

  • Not informing clients timeously to enable them to make other plans.
  • 21st October is not enough time to deal with the existing backlog of new applicants at the Port Elizabeth Office.  There are approximately 400 Somali’s and 400 Ethiopians who have been waiting many weeks and months to have their applications submitted but only 30 are accepted on a Monday and Tuesday.
  • The long distances new applicants and existing permit holders must now travel to Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria or Musina to have their permits issued or extended.
  • Port Elizabeth might not be a main Port of Entry however many thousands of refugees are serviced by this office from the Eastern Cape as well as the Free State, Northern Cape and Southern Cape and no consideration for their welfare was taken into account.
  • The department has been aware for some time that the lease was about to expire and missing the deadline to inform the Dept. of Public Works for new space is not acceptable.  Why was the decision to move taken so suddenly with-out any proper planning in place to deal with such a complex process? Why other temporary premises could not be found to keep the office open while they found new office space.  We are aware of the court action by businesses around the RRO in Sidon Road but so has the DHA for over a year.  To use this as a reason to close the office is not acceptable.
  • What system is in place to inform applicants and permit holders as to which office their file will be sent to and what guarantee is there that these will not be misplaced
  • The increased burden on the remaining Refugee Reception Offices to absorb the clients of Port Elizabeth Office, all of whom are struggling due to the closure of the Johannesburg Office 
  • If files will only be sent to the other offices in the last week of November what guarantees are there that those people whose permits expire during the first week of December will be given an appointment at the other offices before their permit expires, when these offices already have large numbers to deal with
  • Refugee and Asylum seekers are already traumatised by the situation they find themselves in and to simply close the office down so quickly shows a lack of compassion for the most vulnerable in society 

Ms Lusu requested recommendations and ideas from the stakeholders so she could take them to the Director General who she met on Friday 21st October 2011.

The Stakeholders recommended the following:

  • Secure a two week extension in order to give the RRO and stakeholders sufficient time to deal with the large numbers of new applicants still waiting assistance.
  • Temporary space be found for the RRO as a matter of urgency
  • Clear guidelines are given as to how the files will be transferred to new offices
  • Communication via the media, sms’s etc. be undertaken to inform clients that their files will be removed 

She gave the stakeholders the assurance that she would take this request to the Director General and refer back by 12 noon on Friday 21st October 2011. 

The Stakeholders which consisted of representatives from the Project for Conflict Resolution and Development (PCRD), the NMMU Refugee Rights Centre (RRC), the Black Sash, the Somali Association of South Africa (SASA) and the Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT) agreed to await the decision and would then act accordingly. 

Ms Lusu contacted Mr Harmse after 12 noon and informed him no extensions will be made for new applicants and the closure of the RRO will go ahead as planned.  

This morning the 24th of October, the guards and officials at the RRO simply informed the new applicants that no new applications were being accepted but did not communicate to these applicants where they should go to apply for an asylum seeker permit.   

As stakeholders we are extremely disappointed at the response from the Department of Home Affairs and we call on the Department to take adequate steps to address this unacceptable situation immediately.