Challenge to closure of refugee office to be heard

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) said on Wednesday its to challenge the Department of Home Affairs’ closing of the Port Elizabeth refugee reception office would appear before the Eastern Cape High Court on Thursday.

LHR teamed up with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Refugee Rights Centre in representing the Somali Association of South Africa and the Project for Conflict Resolution and Development to prevent the department from closing the office.

They are concerned that the closure could lead to increased detention of asylum seekers and a humanitarian emergency.

Home affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni said on Wednesday that the department had not closed the facility in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town because it was still processing outstanding applications of refugees. However, no new applications would be taken by these offices because the department wanted to ensure people applied at the country’s ports of entry, particularly in Pretoria, Musina and Durban.

"We have thoroughly assessed the advantages and disadvantages of the (offices) in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town and we believe that the most effective way to process asylum seekers’ applications is to do so in areas where the majority would have access and (would) have come into the country," he said.

The department was contemplating relocating the office in Port Elizabeth after local business complained about the impact that the presence of refugees had on their businesses. "In Port Elizabeth the landlord has refused to renew our lease agreement on grounds that business is leaving the property. We can’t force the landlord to accommodate us," Mr Apleni said.

"We are facing several court challenges from various businesses and bodies that are complaining about people’s behaviour in the area and that have raised various other concerns they argue are the result of the presence of the home affairs refugee reception offices there."

He said the department had appealed against a court ruling that sought to force it to keep the refugee centres opened in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth because this was an administrative and operational decision.

The Somali Association of South Africa and the Project for Conflict Resolution and Development were the first to challenge the decision to close the office in February last year. The high court found in their favour and ordered the office be reopened.

Melissa du Preez, information and communications co-ordinator for Lawyers for Human Rights, said the Department of Home Affairs had announced its intention to close these offices as one of the many policy changes it was enforcing.

These centres "act as the primary point of contact between asylum-seekers, recognised refugees and the department", she said.

Ms du Preez said Lawyers for Human Rights was concerned that by relocating these offices, services would be severely disrupted, that there would be a rise in the detention of asylum-seekers and that a humanitarian emergency would emerge.

  • This article first appeared in Business Day on 27 February 2013.