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Victims of a Broken System

By Lindsey Stokes

PRETORIA--A towering green fence rises like an ominous skyscraper, separating those who make it inside from those who don't. The courtyard inside its perimeter is littered with forgotten soda bottles and papers, beaten and scattered by the occasional strong gust of wind. The sign on the attached building, though rusted, clearly reads "Department of Home Affairs."

Every day, from 8 a.m. until closing, asylum seekers from across the continent flock here in a desperate attempt to get the necessary paperwork to legally remain in South Africa. Without such papers they risk arrest and imprisonment.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) projects 274, 400 asylum seekers will pass through the country in the year 2014, of which only 75, 600 will receive refugee status. The only hope left for the remainder is an appeals process.

But receiving status is only half the battle. Challenges such as high unemployment, limited access to services, income inequality, and xenophobic violence make adjusting seamlessly very difficult.

We watched carefully as a stern-faced woman emerged from the dirty, military-style tent at the far edge of the yard, her thick arms filled with a large stack of papers. Surrounded by a crowd of 75 strong she made her way to the center, plopped down her bundle, and through gesture alone chose who was now at the front of the line; the crowd erupted with shouts and waving arms.

"Sisters, please are you from the U.N.?" a man from the inside yelled desperately to us.

The only answer we could muster was a weak and uncomforting, "No."

Those outside the green fence described the flaws in the system they have experienced first hand: discrimination by the staff, bribes, two months wait for paperwork review. Most were reduced to sleeping outside in the adjacent park as no temporary shelter had been provided.

Applicants under review receive a brown stamp on their forearm after which any hopes of getting back inside are squashed. The Department of Home Affairs will contact you, not the other way around.

Claims of police brutality and harassment echoed among the refugees.

"When we see the police we run... The police want to take our money, they will arrest us for nothing, for just standing here," said one.

Despite the hardships and the frustration, a tight-knit community based on hope, mutual respect, sympathy and brotherhood has developed, according to the refugees. This bond outlasts any review waiting period.

"If I get any money I send it home," said one. "That's what we are all about. Forget about me! We will help each other."


Posted by South Africa Group on May 17, 2014 1:41 AM
Category: South Africa 2014


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