Refugees struggle to renew asylum documents with Home Affairs online system

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Many refugees are using internet cafes as they struggle to renew their asylum documents through the Home Office’s online system. Photo: Tariro Washinyira

  • Many refugee permits expired during the Covid lockdown period when Home Affairs closed its offices.
  • Asylum seekers and refugees had until December 31, 2021 to renew their papers online.
  • Some refugees say they missed the deadline due to online system failures, not for lack of trying.
  • Home Affairs did not say what people who missed the deadline should now do.

Refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa had until December 31, 2021 to renew their documentation online. Some of those who missed that deadline blame the persistent failures of the Department of the Interior’s (DHA) online system for being behind schedule. Others say they never received a response after renewing online.

When the Covid pandemic hit in 2020, Home Affairs closed its offices to refugees. Many people’s permits expired during the lockdown. Refugees who arrived in South Africa after March 2020 had no way to apply for asylum status.

Refugees without valid documents find it difficult to access basic services, enroll their children in school or open bank accounts. They are also vulnerable to arrest and deportation, exploitation by employers, and rogue police extorting bribes.

Home Affairs has granted a blanket extension to all asylum seekers and refugees whose permits expired on or after March 15, 2020. Refugees were invited to renew their papers online. The system went live on April 15, 2021. They had until December 31, 2021 to renew.

Last year in July, GroundUp reported that refugees were frustrated with Home Affairs’ online renewal system.

Victor Chikalogwe of People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP) said that when their office opened in January, many refugees and asylum seekers said they received no response, while others stated that they had been called for a second interview.

He said: ‘We know they renewed online and the applications were unsuccessful due to the system failure. But the DHA takes it like they don’t know the deadline.

The Legal Resource Center (LRC) says Home Affairs has given no advice on what asylum seekers who have missed the deadline due to online system failures should do.

Zimkhitha Mhlahlo, a lawyer at the LRC, said the department had also not announced whether the online renewal process would continue to be the system used now that lockdown regulations have eased.

In December, GroundUp received an email from an asylum seeker who needed help with an online extension. His papers expired during the Covid-19 lockdown. “Nedbank has frozen my account and at the moment I have no money to pay rent, buy food and baby stuff,” she said.

Another asylum seeker (in South Africa since 2009), whose papers expired in May 2020, said she applied online and sent emails afterwards but was unsuccessful. His asylum papers expired during the Covid-19 lockdown.

She discovered her account was frozen when her bank card was declined at a supermarket checkout in October 2021. She went to the Nedbank branch in St George’s Mall and was told her asylum permit was not valid.

She showed GroundUp her online asylum application and the follow-up emails she had sent to Home Affairs. She needs his account to run her small business selling hair oils.

Nedbank spokeswoman Annaleigh Vallie said the bank froze the account because the asylum permit expired on November 25, 2019. We pointed out that the bank was wrong. November 2019 is actually the date she last successfully renewed her license; it only expired on May 25, 2020 during lockdown, and she tried to renew it afterwards.

Huge backlog

PASSOP and Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) are skeptical of Home Affairs’ ability to clear a massive backlog in the South African asylum system that existed even before the pandemic.

In March, the DHA, the Refugee Appeals Authority and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a $9.6 million asylum seeker backlog project.

Home Secretary Aaron Motsoaledi and Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, met on January 25 to discuss strategies for dealing with asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa.

Motsoaledi said the government was revising the refugee law, citizenship law and immigration law to bring them into line and simplify them.

“We recognize that some of our laws were enacted at a time when things were very different from what they are today. We need to modernize our laws to reflect our current situation, based on our realities. South Africa has no problem with people who legally seek protection. The challenge is with those who are here illegally,” Minister Motsoaledi said.

Triggs said: “UNHCR will invest in a project with the government to strengthen the entire asylum system and resolve the existing asylum backlog and ensure proper documentation.”

UNHCR referred GroundUp’s queries to DHA. For a week, we tried to get comment from DHA spokesperson Siya Qoza, but the department had not commented at the time of publication.

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