World Refugee Day – In the shadow of the Border Management Authority Bill
20 June 2018
Wednesday, 20 June 2018, marks World Refugee Day, a day earmarked to honour the millions of people who have fled their home countries due to war, violence and extreme human rights abuse, with little more than the clothes on their backs.
On this day the United Nations (UN) reminds us that the international commitment by countries to assist the most vulnerable in terms of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the UN Convention), is not a “shared burden” but a “shared global responsibility” based on our “common humanity” and international law obligations. This responsibility is shared by South Africa, which ratified the UN Convention.
South Africa gave effect to the UN Convention by the enactment of the Refugees Act 130 of 1998, which echoes the international principle of “non-refoulement”. This principle requires countries who ratified the UN Convention not to return persons to countries where their life or freedom would be threated because of their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion.” In South Africa however, there appears to be controversy around how refugee status is awarded and the asylum-seeking process was plagued with systemic corruption. This had to be urgently addressed and, in December 2017, the President signed into law the Refugees Amendment Act 11 of 2017, which seeks to address fraud and corruption and to streamline the asylum-seeking process. Although signed into law, the operation of the 2017 Amendment Act still needs to be proclaimed.
The asylum-seeking process however cannot be viewed in isolation. Besides the Refugees Act, the Immigration Act 13 of 2002 also regulates the movement of people into the country. South Africa has 72 designated ports of entry and the Department of Home Affairs’ Annual Report of 2016/17, revealed that Immigration Officers recorded 40 million entries and exits annually. It is also important to keep in mind that these ports of entry are also the first contact asylum-seekers would have with the country’s administrative system before being referred to a Refugee Reception Office to apply for asylum. Therefore, border management is a crucial aspect, which one cannot lose sight of in considering South Africa’s asylum-seeking process. With this in mind, it is fitting to discuss the controversial Border Management Authority Bill (BMA Bill), lurking in the corridors of Parliament. Despite serious objections, the BMA Bill was passed by the National Assembly in 2017 and is currently under deliberation by the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). If approved, it only requires the President’s signature to become law.