Over 153 000 asylum seekers who have been waiting for many years for a decision on their applications for asylum will have their cases heard and decided, thanks to a new agreement signed on Monday by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and the Department of Home Affairs.
The agreement sets in motion a project to eliminate delays and the backlog in asylum decisions in a bid to revamp the refugee management system by 2024.
For many years, South Africa has been known for championing human rights and has been a generous host to people fleeing conflict and persecution from across the African continent and beyond.
Speaking at the signing ceremony of a partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to eliminate a backlog in the Asylum Seeker System in Johannesburg earlier today, Home Affairs Minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, said South Africa is committed to offering protection to people who genuinely need it as they seek refuge from persecution in their home countries.
“I am happy that the UNHCR is partnering with the Government and people of South Africa in eliminating the backlog in the asylum seeker system.
“We are firmly on the path of modernising our immigration laws, focusing on strengthening the system and improving our processes,” Motsoaledi said.
Motsoaledi said in 1998 the Department of Home Affairs received the lowest number of asylum seeker applications at 11 135 while the highest number of 53 361 was processed in 2006.
“Our system was designed to handle such numbers. Things changed for the worst in 2008 when the number of applications shot up nearly fourfold to 207 206.
“Another 223 324 applications were received in 2009. These numbers overwhelmed the system which was functional in dealing with 53 000 applications a year,” Motsoaledi said.
Motsoaledi said as of the 2019/20 financial year, the Refugee Appeal Authority of SA (RAASA), an independent statutory administrative tribunal tasked with ensuring that appeal cases are dealt with efficiently, effectively and in an unbiased manner, said the backlog stood at more than 153 000.
He said the partnership they are launching brings in financial and technical support to help RAASA eliminate the backlog and establish a robust asylum appeals management programme going into the future.
“Over the next four years, the UNHCR will make available US$9.6 million or around R147 million to RAASA and technical support to eliminate this backlog.
“This money will help to employ 36 RAASA members who will be appointed and trained over the next six months,” Motsoaledi said.
Motsoaledi said a portion of the money has been set assist to acquire IT tools the team will need to undertake the task.
Problems in the asylum system led to some claims being stuck for over a decade waiting to be heard.
Of the 266,694 refugees and asylum-seekers in South Africa, two-thirds of them do not have access to the full rights and privileges of refugee status.
Under the Asylum Decisions Backlog Elimination Project, 153 391 cases will be processed over the next four years.
Once their claims are processed those who will be recognised as refugees will be free not only to access national services on a par with the South African citizens, but will also to become valuable contributors to South African society and the development of the country.
“We welcome the Government’s determination to revamp the asylum system in South Africa and their openness to working with UNHCR on eliminating the backlog,” said UNHCR’s Representative in South Africa, Leonard Zulu.
“Changes to policy and strengthening administrative procedures are vital for a fair and effective asylum system and for the public to have trust in the architecture of refugee management and the institution of asylum.
“The work we have started will also ensure that those who are in need of international protection have their refugee status recognised as quickly as possible. This project also supports efforts to maintain social cohesion between refugee and host communities,” Zulu said.