A few weeks ago, I attended a social cohesion programme facilitated by the Deputy Speaker of the Easter Cape Legislature, Honourable Mlibo Qhoboshiyane, where various stakeholders, involving the city, local business, NGOs, immigrants and refugees organisations participated in a social dialogue about immigration issues.
During that dialogue it was agreed that such dialogues should be replicated all around the country on a regular basis in order to spread the education about immigration, but most importantly to provide an opportunity for us as Africans to provide African solutions to African problems.
I therefore feel a great sense of humility to be here among you this morning on this important occasion of the re-opening of the Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Office.
I feel that we are already living true to the call of that social dialogue of a few weeks ago which ended past midnight with a clarion call that, Africa, know yourself!
As we gather here today to launch this Refugee Reception Office, I want us to reflect on the journey that has made this, not only a possibility, but a moral necessity.
I want to begin that reflection by telling you about a leader that was gifted to the world by this province, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
2018 is the year that South Africans have dedicated as the year of reflecting on the legacy of President Nelson Mandela, a son of this province, country and continent, indeed a son of humanity itself, by using the principles he stood and fought for as a lighthouse to guide our journey through the waves of turbulence we currently face.
As President Ramaphosa said when he addressed the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit at the United Nations, Mandela’s legacy should remain a constant reminder to the international community about South Africa’s commitment to a better world for all.
President Nelson Mandela’s is a legacy committed to the protection, advancement and advocacy of human rights the world over, and in Africa in particular.
Accordingly, the re-opening of this centre demonstrates our commitment to the advancement of these very values to which Nelson Mandela committed his entire life and whose realisation he would steadfastly pursue regardless of the sacrifices that he was required to pay in terms of his own life or in terms of long separation from his young wife and children, and his family and loved ones.
We wish on this occasion to reiterate the statement we made on June 20th at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, on World Refugee Day, that our contribution to the protection of refuges is not merely born out of gratitude for humankind’s efforts to help free our country, but more deeply out of our humaneness and conviction in the ethos of human rights and human freedoms.
On that occasion, we called for global leadership and vision based on common humanity, respect for international obligations and the desire to create a better world.
The failure of political leadership and governance in many countries has exacerbated the conditions of stability for many peoples, giving rise to conflicts and strife, poverty and marginalisation and deepening socio-economic fissures in many societies which are not made any easier by worsening climate change conditions.
Those with parochial and narrow political objectives are intensifying and deepening these conditions, and exploiting the strife, in order to benefit themselves and their groupings, regardless of who suffers along the way.
Unfortunately, the weak and vulnerable, especially the poor, children and women, become the easiest targets and are often forced to migrate not by choice but because this is the only option available to them if they are to survive, and in so doing, they have embark on treacherous routes and rely on dangerous means to reach their destinations.
Their vulnerability does not end only whilst still travelling, it prevails right throughout their lives, even when they have reached their points of destination as they often have to continue to evade unscrupulous public officials and criminal syndicates that seek to exploit them and their situation for their own ends.
The challenge of political leadership and governance does not only arise at the countries of origin, but it also is faced at the countries of destination when particularly populism rears an ugly such as we are beginning to see in Johannesburg and Tshwane, when political begin to blame asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants for their service delivery failures and lack of vision and capacity.
Great improvements have been made in our management of asylum seekers and refugees, which have resulted in us being able to accelerate the adjudication of asylum applications and the determination of the status of asylum applicants.
Yet, once again, we are faced with a spectre of failing municipal political leaders stoking the fires of xenophobia by blaming immigrants and immigration policies for their failures to deliver the services they had falsely promised to deliver.
The facts are,
- all refugees in our country are properly documented – for one to be called a “refugee” by law they must have undergone the process of status determination which commenced with asylum application,
- not all immigrants are refugees, but all refugees are immigrants; and whereas there are some immigrants who may not be documented, but it is blatantly untrue that all immigrants in South Africa are undocumented and thus “illegal”, and
- the photographs and video clips which keep circulating on WhatsApp groups are mostly photoshopped and do not originate from South Africa, and thus must not be paid attention to.
We should stand together to reject with contempt the ill-informed cheap shots thus taken by certain political leaders at immigrants and our progressive immigration policies and reaffirm the UNHCR’s approach towards inclusive development, consolidation of democracy, conflict prevention and resolution and efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Once more, we are encouraged by the African Union’s leadership role on peace, security and democratic governance issues in the various countries afflicted by conflict.
We fully embrace the Pan-African mission articulated in Agenda 2063.
South Africa remains committed to protecting refugees and strengthening our institutional arrangements in this regard.
Accordingly, following the adoption of our International Migration White Paper, we are in the process of updating our policies and regulations with regard to international migration and refugees.
In particular, we intend to strengthen our capacity the better to manage the challenges to the asylum system occasioned by the large number of economic migrants who take advantage of the asylum seeker process to regularize their stay in South Africa.
We have been clear over the years that South Africa does not have a refugee problem.
We host a manageable number of refugees who reside in safety here in South Africa, among fellow South Africans.
Rather, we have a problem of irregular migration occasion by a high economic migration.
In recent years, false asylum applications by economic migrants overwhelmed our system, resulting in inordinately long wait times for decisions for applicants.
This made it extremely difficult to identify and respond to the needs of genuine refugees.
Our new international migration policy presents a new approach to better manage irregular and economic migration.
It is hoped that these improvements will reduce the number of unfounded applications particularly by economic migrants and improve speedy adjudication of asylum claims.
Other developments include our use of technology to manage the asylum system.
The Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Office in Pretoria was once notorious for long wait times, client frustration and chaotic crowds, which were a breeding ground for corruption and other exploitation.
We had promised on World Refugee Day that “a new Port Elizabeth RRO will be opened in October 2018”, and today we are here to fulfil our promise!
Not only are we launching a Centre that is fit for this purpose, we are launching a refugee reception Centre of the future, a Centre that is resourced with the perfect balance of human capital and up-to-date technology that will allow us to streamline our services and efforts in assisting asylum seekers and refugees, and deal with future obstacles.
This Refugee Reception Office, PERRO, will also ease the strain currently placed on the Cape Town, Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng refugee reception offices, empowering us to process applications much more efficiently.
In 2016 we called on the UNHCR to ensure that there is an integrated and shared registration process for all refugees and asylum seekers.
This is necessary not only to grant the fundamental right to an identity, particularly for children in refugee situations, but also to address the growing concern among nations that the asylum process may be misused by persons and groups intent on unleashing harm to the host nations.
As we worked to re-open this Centre, we ensured that we bring on board technology that will allow us to participate in this integrated and shared registration process.
To that effect, we have rolled out a state-of-the-art automated booking system which is integrated with the National Immigration Information System.
This continues to advance our goal to reduce waiting time and queues at our offices.
It does much to limit corrupt activities and enhances our drive towards establishing a one-stop Centre that caters to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers from various perspectives which is still awaiting approval from National Treasury.
Such a one-stop Centre will cater for all the needs of persons seeking protection, including health, basic services and referrals for other services such as education.
We have done much to enhance South Africa’s management of asylum seekers and refugees, and migration in general.
Yet, we are not in denial of our capacity constraints, particularly in regard to lack of financial and human resources to manage the enormous challenges we are confronted with in all the provinces.
We are aware that government as a whole is facing resource challenges given the current fiscal constraints, and so all Departments and tiers of government have been affected, impacting on citizens and recipients of our services.
However, in some instances, the challenges arise not from lack of capacity on our part, but from lack of enforcement of municipal by-laws by relevant municipal authorities in relation to trading, residential and related services.
It is important that municipalities enforce their by-laws instead of taking populist cheap-shots at national government Departments, which undermines the spirit of cooperative governance, and immigrants, which can stoke the fires of xenophobia and undermine much needed human and African solidarity, as well as social cohesion.
As reported in our Annual Report, the major highlights in 2017/18 included the launch of a new, improved refugee travel document.
The passport we provide for refugees is fully compliant with the requirements of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the standards of the International Civil Aviation Authority.
We also have improved legislation that will go a very long way in empowering us to improve our capacity to reduce backlogs faced by the Refugee Appeal Board.
It was no mistake that South Africa was ranked among one of the highest asylum seeker destinations in the world between 2008 and 2015, and we have continued to build on this milestone.
In 2017 Parliament approved the Refugees Amendment Bill, which is another major achievement, which greatly improves even the structures such as the Refugee Appeals Authority and the Standing Committee on Refugee Affairs.
I would also like to take this opportunity to address those who spew xenophobic sentiments in the name of policy advancement.
Securing our borders is something we have been working tirelessly on and we have made great strides.
We have considered the sensitivity and nuances of cross-border movement and worked hard to ensure that the legislation and policy framework around it supports our commitment to assisting refugees and asylum seekers with legitimate claims as a signatory to various international conventions relating to refugees.
We have made it clear before that our country stands to benefit from the establishment of a Border Management Authority (BMA) and its urgent finalisation by the National Council of Provinces is a matter of utmost urgency and long overdue.
We have also recently introduced the White Paper on International Migration that seeks to manage a secure and efficient cross-border movement of people, goods and conveyance.
We remain steadfast as a country in our commitment to host and protect refugees.
This sentiment is echoed by the vast majority of South Africans who are supportive of refugees and who live peacefully alongside immigrants from everywhere in the world, particularly the African continent.
We must ensure that we do not fall into the temptation seen in too many societies of blaming refugees for pre-existing problems.
That is why we continue to emphasise the importance of a positive, coordinated response to the challenge of refugees and immigration, and particularly have emphasised in the new policy framework a “whole-of-state, whole-of-society” approach, that makes that the management of international migration the responsibility of all the sectors and stakeholders in our society and government in the true of ubuntu!
And in the spirit of Madiba, South Africa will always rise to the occasion in supporting Africans and others in distress, even as we partner with our sister countries in addressing the root causes of that distress.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We were faced with many challenges prior to 2011 that led to this centre closing down.
I would like in that regard, to thank the hard working and dedicated staff of the Department of Home Affairs and all those that worked tirelessly to overcome those challenges in order to make today possible.
This is precisely what the message of Thuma Mina is about, that when faced with urgent challenges to resolve the challenges before you that would help improve the quality of the lives of others, instead of asking what is in it for me, you jump into action and not ask what is the danger that lies ahead of me if I step forward to assist resolve these challenges, but become the first to volunteer for duty, and you stay the course until the final solution is achieved!
I thank you.