Rights groups win court bid to re-open Refugee Reception office

Joint Media Statement on behalf of the 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), HIVOS Eastern Cape Refugee and Migrant Programme and the Black Sash.

For Immediate Release: Thursday, 16 February 2012

Refugee rights organisations welcome today’s high court judgement ordering Home Affairs to re-open the PE Refugee Reception Office with immediate effect. The Port Elizabeth High Court found the abrupt and unexpected closure of the office in November last year to be unlawful and declared that a fully functioning office must be opened at once to provide services to asylum seekers and refugees, including new applicants for asylum, in the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality.

The Somali Association of South Africa - Eastern Cape (SASA EC) and the Project for Conflict Resolution and Development (PCRD) acted as 1st and 2nd applicants in the case and the HIVOS Eastern Cape Refugee and Migrant Programme; Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Refugee Rights Centre, Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT) and Black Sash provided supporting affidavits.

Michael Bendle, Director of the Project for Conflict Resolution and Development, says today’s ruling is a victory for one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in South Africa. “The judgement sends out a clear message to Home Affairs that unilateral and unlawful decisions will not go unchallenged. The court decision means that the reception office in Lavinia Street in Port Elizabeth’s North End must deal with both existing refugee and asylum seeker permit holders as well as new applicants. In October last year, Home Affairs just withdrew all services to new applicants,” explains Bendle. 

According to Home Affairs, the decision to close the reception centre was made partly because “Port Elizabeth is not located strategically to assist people who want to apply for asylum”.  But Acting Chairperson of SASA EC Abdirahaman Jilley says 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 faced the prospect of having to travel very long distances, and at great expense, to Durban or Cape Town or Pretoria to have their permits issued or extended. It was going to put unbearable pressure on these already overburdened refugee reception offices who have been struggling to cope since the closure of the Johannesburg Office,” says Jilley.

Black Sash’s Eastern Cape Provincial Director Alexa Lane says the victory is credit to civil society who stood together against the abuse of state power. “It was deeply upsetting that these already traumatised people were treated with such disregard. To close the office down so suddenly, and without proper notice or consultation, showed a complete lack of compassion and respect for the basic rights of our most vulnerable members of society,” insists Lane.

The rights groups say they will continue to monitor the Refugee Reception Office to ensure that the court order is implemented properly. David Stephens, HIVOS Programme Manager for the Eastern Cape Refugee and Migrant Programme, says the state has a moral and legal duty to uphold the Constitutional right of everyone to administrative justice. “The law in this regard applies equally to all, including refugees. Home Affairs must meet their statutory obligations to those refugees and asylum seekers waiting to have their applications processed or their permits issued or extended,” says Stephens.

Vuyo Msizi, a Fieldworker for the Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT), says they look forward to engaging further with the Home Minister and the Director-General. “It is important that the future of refugee protection in South Africa is discussed with the public, including stakeholders and members of the asylum seeker and refugee community,” says Vuyo.

Asylum Seekers 6.02.12.JPG           Hundreds of Asylum Seekers in Port Elizabeth queue daily to apply for permits

For more information and interview requests, please contact:

Linton Harmse, Director: Refugee Rights Centre, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University         

041-5041310 / 073 1762239

Vuyo Msizi, Fieldworker: Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT)

041-5812414 / 0842422012

Michael Bendle, Director: Project for Conflict Resolution and Development

041-5812414 / 0834557569

Abdirahaman Jilley, Acting Chairperson SASA EC

078 3000 783

Alexa Lane, Eastern Cape Provincial Director: Black Sash

041-487 3288 / 084-572 1467

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

041-5812414 / 0832251019