Lobby group Corruption Watch’s latest report titled “Project Lokisa: Asylum at a Price” released on Tuesday alleges endemic extortion and corruption by government officials tasked to assist asylum seekers and refugees, particularly at home affairs’ Marabastad Refugee Reception Office (RRO) in Pretoria.
“From the minute a refugee or asylum seeker approaches the border [of South Africa], he or she confronts officials, and frequently private citizens, who man one or another proverbial gate through which the person must pass,” Corruption Watch’s executive director David Lewis said.
“These gatekeepers vary from the security guard who extracts R100 for allowing the refugee to literally enter the gate of the documentation centre, to the department of home affairs official who is custodian of that vital final stamp and whose fee is measured in the thousands of rands.”
Since 2012, Corruption Watch has received 314 reports from foreign nationals about extortion, threats and solicitation from government officials. Over 70 percent of the complaints relate to bribes demanded for the issuing of asylum and refugee permits and 17 percent implicate members of the SA Police Service and metro police officers.
The report states that bribes of up to R15,000 are demanded and the immigrants who report the crime face being assaulted “whether the bribe is paid or not”.
“Metro police and SAPS officials have confiscated goods, threatened undocumented migrants with deportation and confiscated documents of foreign nationals unless bribes were paid,” according to the Corruption Watch report.
Pretoria is the hotspot for the corrupt activities, with the lion’s share of all reported corrupt activities, followed by Johannesburg.
In the report, an asylum seeker, only identified as Sarah, claimed that in 2015, a home affairs official at Marabastad demanded R7,000 to process the full refugee status. She paid a R3,000 “deposit” and that was the last time she heard from the home affairs official.
The allegations of corruption are also directed at companies which specialise in translation and interpretation services, with one staff member at a translation company fingered as a prominent “middleman” between home affairs staff and asylum seekers.
In September, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba toured the notorious Marabastad centre which had been revamped and had also received a technological upgrade.
Gigaba said that with the technological advancement, his department hoped to curtail corruption at the facility which had previously been widely reported in the media.
“We’re introducing an online booking system for people to come and be captured, then see the refugee status determination officers. If, for some reason, the decision on the application has not been made, or they [asylum seekers] have appealed, we have made the extensions of their asylum seeker permits to be paperless so that people can self-extend using kiosks which we are going to roll out throughout the country,” said Gigaba at the time.
Under the new regulations, asylum seekers register for an appointment at automated machines which also captures their fingerprints and other details. Appointment dates with home affairs officials are issued via the machines and only the asylum seekers scheduled for interviews with the officials will be let in, using their fingerprints for access.
Flanked by several top departmental officials, including director general Mkuseli Apleni, deputy director general for immigration services, Jackie McKay, chief director for asylum seeker management, Mandla Madumisa, and operations manager at Marabastad, Mtetho Macanda, Gigaba was positive about improved service delivery.
But on Tuesday, Corruption Watch said it wasn’t convinced. The report alleges that one of the officials at Marabastad had his “hands in the cookie jar”. An undercover forensic investigator working for Corruption Watch, disguised as an asylum seeker, was able to secure a meeting with this official “in the shadows of an underground parking” in Pretoria west.
At the meeting, the operative told the government official that he had lost his passport.
“[The official] said once I had the affidavit [from Lawyers for Human Rights confirming that passport was lost] I should bring it to him and then he would be able to give me the asylum status application forms in return. I asked him whether he charged for his services and he said “that’s up to you”.
The undercover operative also narrated that he verified that the official was employed by home affairs and had also been a director of a third party company, but had since quit the private company post.
The home affairs department was not available to comment on the Corruption Watch report.
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