SCA chastises Home Affairs

The Supreme Court of Appeal has severely criticised Home Affairs for ignoring repeated court orders and gave the department until 1 July to reopen the refugee reception office (RRO) in Port Elizabeth.


The court also ordered Home Affairs director general Mkuseli Apleni to report in writing once a month to the Somali Association of South Africa and the Project for Conflict Resolution and Development about the progress made to ensure compliance with the court order. The two organisations, represented by Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), in 2012 and 2013 obtained court orders setting aside the closure of the Port Elizabeth office, but the department ignored both court orders.

The reception office was closed in 2011; severely curtailing refugee services for the majority of asylum seekers due to the long distances they must travel to continuously renew their permits. The situation was exacerbated by Home Affairs’ unwillingness to allow files to be transferred to the remaining offices in Pretoria, Durban and Musina.

Home Affairs based part of its decision to close the office on plans to open a reception office at the Lebombo border crossing with Mozambique, but the opening of the office was repeatedly delayed and it is now only expected to open early next year. The Appeal Court criticised Apleni for seeking to circumvent the previous court orders and the department for misleading Parliament by stating that no new office would be opened in Lebombo, but later claiming the answer only pertained to that financial year.

“The refugees and asylum seekers encountered here are among those who are most in need of protection. They do not have powerful political constituencies and their problems, more often than not, are ignored by government. “Previous orders of courts appear to have done little to make their problem visible and to cause the authorities to comply with their obligations. “…It is a most dangerous thing for a litigant, particularly a state department and senior officials in its employ, to wilfully ignore an order of court.

“…No democracy can survive if court orders can be shunned and trampled on as happened here,” Appeal Court Judge Visvanathan Ponnan said.
Although the department claimed the closure would merely “inconvenience” asylum seekers, the Judge said it trivialised the vulnerability and desperate circumstances of many asylum seekers.

“That decision, which did not withstand scrutiny by our courts, made light of the fact that several communities of refugees and asylum seekers, including some 14 000 Somali refugees, reside and work in that geographic region,” he said. The head of LHR’s litigation programme David Cote welcomed the ruling, adding that the department’s attempts to circumvent court orders and mislead Parliament were dangerous precedents for our constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

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