PRESS RELEASE: Judgment reserved in challenge against closure of PE refugee reception office

Judgment has been reserved in the case challenging the closure of the Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office in the Eastern Cape High Court.

Lawyers for Human Rights and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Refugee Rights Centre are challenging the closure - the latest in a series of moves by the Department of Home Affairs to relocate RROs to the country’s borders.

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.

Unfortunately, the Department has taken a secretive approach to its new policy direction and has not engaged stakeholders.

The Department argued today, 19 April 2013, that the decision to close the office was lawful and that the inconvenience of having to apply in a different reception office and traveling there repeatedly not be elevated to a right.  They also argued that public consultation had taken place despite the Department's refusal to engage with stakeholders after the closure of the office.

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

The argued that public consultation was impossible because they “could not identify who to consult with”. The Department added that non-profit organisations did not have the inherent right to be consulted on the closures either.

"LHR is concerned that the department is implementing drastic changes in pollicy without engaging the refugee community or organisations which represent their interests," said David Cote of LHR's Strategic Litigation Unit. "The closures of each of the offices have been challenged but DHA still insists that it does not need to consult with the public on these changes." 

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.