PRESS NOTIFICATION: Hearing challenging closure of PE refugee reception office to be heard

Lawyers for Human Rights and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Refugee Rights Centre will appear in the Eastern Cape High Court tomorrow, 19 April 2013, to challenge the closure of the Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office (RRO).

LHR is representing the Somali Association of South Africa and the Project for Conflict Resolution and Development who first challenged the decision to close the office in February 2012. The high court found in their favour and ordered the re-opening of the office but the Department of Home Affairs failed to open the office and has relied on an alleged “new decision” taken in May 2012 to keep the office closed.

The Port Elizabeth RRO is the only place in the Eastern Cape at which asylum-seekers and refugees can access their statutory rights under the Refugees Act. Between May 2010 and March 2011, the RRO processed over 22 500 asylum-seekers and refugees. At present only three RROs remain operational in South Africa: Pretoria, Durban and Musina.

The department announced its intention to close the RRO, which is one of the many policy changes it is attempting to enforce. It is the department's aim to close all existing RROs in metropolitan areas and relocate them to South Africa’s borders.  Unfortunately, the Department has taken a secretive approach to this new policy direction and has not engaged stakeholders.

LHR has argued on three grounds of review on this “new decision” including that proper consultation was not carried out, the decision was taken without any form of public consultation and that the decision was unreasonable, irrational and materially affected by irrelevant considerations.

RROs act as the primary point of contact between asylum-seekers, recognised refugees and the department where applicants are interviewed, have appeals heard, apply for documentation and access services related to lost or stolen permits.

Given that no final decision has in fact been taken to relocate RROs to ports of entry, LHR argues that exploring policy options cannot be relevant to the operation of the RRO.

The state has not denied claims that no alternative reception office has yet been constructed, saying “the Lebombo RRO remains a long way from actually being established in a functional state”.

Although stating that it is not government policy to establish refugee camps, there is a real likelihood that the establishment of a refugee reception office in a remote area like Lebombo, with the accompanying closure of existing offices in metropolitan areas, will create de facto camps as seen in other countries with similar policies.

This is the latest in LHR’s efforts to prevent the closures of RROs across the country, including closures in Cape Town and Crown Mines in Johannesburg.

The case is expected to begin at 9:30am.