UN To Help South Africa Overhaul Asylum System

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South Africa is overhauling its management of the asylum system, the home affairs department announced Tuesday after meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Home Affairs Minister Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi and Gillian Triggs, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Assistant High Commissioner for Protection with UNHCR, met Tuesday to “review and also take forward the strategic approaches to the management of asylum and refugees in South Africa”.

Initially, the meeting was agreed to in March 2020 but it was delayed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This bilateral was instructed by our Cabinet to, amongst others, overhaul the management of the asylum system in South Africa,” said Dr. Motsoaledi.

The minister said the aim was to partner with UNHCR to provide increased technical assistance and resource mobilisation support to enhance the protection regime and “strengthen our strategic partnership”.

The meeting discussed the strengthening of the asylum and refugee system in South Africa, including legislative reform, social assistance, judicial engagement, refugee status determination, and the backlog project.

The meeting also looked at durable solutions for refugees, statelessness, the Global Compact on Refugees, and updating the cooperation agreement between the SA government and UNHCR.

Of the nearly 300 000 refugees and asylum-seekers in South Africa, two-thirds of them have asylum-seeker status and do not have access to the full rights and privileges of a full-fledged refugee. 

In recent years, South Africa’s asylum system has faced problems that have led to the claims of over 153 000 asylum-seekers becoming stuck in the system, some for up to a decade.

The home affairs minister and the UN assistant high commissioner emphasised the need to strengthen the bilateral efforts to fight against the abuse of the asylum system while protecting its integrity.

Dr. Motsoaledi revealed that South Africa was reviewing the Refugee Act, the Citizenship Act, and the Immigration Act “to align them and simplify them for everyone”.

UN Assistant Secretary-General Triggs said she appreciated that South Africa was reviewing these laws.

“We recognise that some of our laws were enacted in a period where things were very different to how they are now. We need to modernise our laws to reflect our current circumstances, based on our realities,” said Dr. Motsoaledi.

“South Africa does not have a problem with people who are legally seeking protection. The challenge is with those who are here illegally.”

Triggs said that it was important to provide a speedy and fair determination of asylum claims.

“Today we’ve made important progress towards making South Africa’s asylum system fairer and faster,” said Triggs.

“I know that governments around the world have faced challenges because of Covid but addressing the backlog in asylum claims will make a tangible difference to the lives of people coming here to seek protection.

“We need to work together with government to address their predicament. The UNHCR will be investing in a project with the government to strengthen the entire asylum system and resolve the existing asylum backlog and to ensure proper documentation.”

Triggs also urged refugees and asylum-seekers to respect the local laws of the host country.