08 MARCH 2021

Programme Director and Director-General of Home Affairs, Mr Tommy Makhode,

My colleague, Deputy Minister Mr Njabulo Nzuza,

Mr Valentin Tapsoba - Director of the Regional Bureau for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Southern Africa,

Mr Leonard Zulu - Representative for UNHCR South Africa and Multi Country Office,

Chairperson of the Refugee Appeals Authority of SA (RAASA), Advocate Nigel Holmes,

Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Refugee Affairs, Ms Jane Mugwena

UNHCR officials,

Home Affairs and Government officials,

Members of the media,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning.

Thank you for joining us we enter into a partnership with the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) aimed eliminating the backlog in the asylum seeker system over the next four years.

I am going to be signing this agreement after receiving permission to do so from President Cyril Ramaphosa. This underlines South Africa’s continued commitment to offering protection to people who genuinely need it as they seek refuge from persecution in their home countries.

Today marks the latest solid and deliberate steps that we are taking to systematically solve challenges as we seek to implement our immigration laws more vigorously, guided by our Constitution and international obligations.

We are firmly on the path of modernising our immigration laws, focusing on strengthening the system and improving our processes.

I am happy that the UNHCR is partnering with the Government and people of South Africa in eliminating the backlog in the asylum seeker system.

The start of this backlog coincided with the year 2008 when there was a global financial crisis. Up until then, the Department was able to clear asylum applications which it was receiving each year from 1998, the year in which the Refugee Act of South Africa was enacted.

In 1998 the Department of Home Affairs received the lowest number of asylum seeker applications at 11 135 while the highest number of 53 361 was processed in 2006. Our system was designed to handle such numbers.

Things changed for the worst in 2008 when the number of applications shot up nearly fourfold to 207 206. Another 223 324 applications were received in 2009. These numbers overwhelmed a system which was functional in dealing with 53 000 applications a year. Suddenly, the system had to process over 400 000 applications which came in just two years.

As of the 2019/20 financial year the Refugee Appeal Authority of SA (RAASA), an independent statutory administrative tribunal tasked with ensuring that appeal cases are dealt with efficiently, effectively and in an unbiased manner, said the backlog stood at more than 153 000.

The Auditor General of SA said if nothing changed, it would take 68 years to clear the backlog without taking new cases.

Since the Auditor General’s pronouncements in February 2020, a lot of things have changed to help us deal with the backlog.

We have changed the legislation which required that only the Chairperson be a lawyer. All members of the RAASA are now required to be legally trained. The legal requirement that each case be hear by a quorum of three of the RAASA’s five members has been amended. Now, each member can hear a case individually and only complex require a quorum.

These changes have introduced agility in the operations of the RAASA.

The partnership we are launching today brings in financial and technical support to help RAASA eliminate the backlog and establish a robust asylum appealsmanagement programme going into the future.

Over the next four years, the UNHCR will make available US$9.6 million or around R147 million to RAASA and technical support to eliminate this backlog.

This money will help to employ 36 RAASA members who will be appointed and trained over the next six months. A portion of the money has been set assist to acquire IT tools the team will need to undertake the task.

The Department will provide administrative support to RAASA to ensure that cases are researched and prepared properly before they are heard.

This support will also help to monitor progress against monthly targets of resolved cases. 

Currently RAASA has a chairperson and two members with supporting staff consisting of 11 officials nationally who are in administrative roles.

This exponential increase in the number of RAASA members will great enhance the tribunal’s ability to reduce the backlog.

The RAASA is also looking at increasing the use of technology to stream its processes and make interaction with applicants easier. Technology is going to be increasingly used in managing files of applicants. This move will make it easier to communicate with applicants via means other than physical meetings. This will certainly increase the efficiency of the RAASA.

RAASA has also communicated its intention of increasing its outreach programme to asylum seekers to inform them of the appeal process.

Viewed collectively, these initiatives will help to protect the rights of applicants while reminding them of their responsibilities.

The partnership we are forging with the UNHCR takes forward the commitment made by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Filippo Grandi, when he visited our country in 2019.

On that occasion, he committed the UNHCR to continue to provide support and advice on achieving an efficient and fair asylum seeker programme.

He also commended South Africa on having what he called “a very exemplary policy of receiving people in distress from many parts of Africa and even beyond”.

He reminded asylum seekers on the need to obey domestic laws of host countries.

This reminder is important because it is the responsibility of applicants to inform the RAASA of changes in their circumstances which have an impact on their applications. These could be a change of address, for an example.

A RAASA that is more efficient will help to reduce the abuse of the system. RAASA has reported instances where some applicants get into the country, present themselves at any one of the five Refugee Reception Centres where they get an Asylum Seeker or Section 22 permit. These applicants will then use these Section 22 permits as work or study permits instead of applying for regular permits provided for in terms of the Immigration Act.

The partnership with the UNHCR on eliminating the backlog will go a long way in ensuring that asylum seekers find out quicker if they will be allowed to remain in the country or will be required to leave because they do not meet the requirements for international protection in terms of refugee qualification criteria.

Applicants qualify for international protection on the following grounds;

  • If they are persecuted on political, religious or sexual orientation grounds.
  • If they come from a country or a region with instability or war,
  • If they are dependents of someone who is seeking international protection because of the above reasons.

With those few words. Let me express my gratitude to UNHCR to the progressive relation we have built. I look forward to continued engagements with them on issues of mutual interest.

Thank you very much.