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Is South Africa home to more than a million asylum seekers? The numbers don’t add up

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With more than 3.2 million refugees and asylum seekers displaced in 2015 alone, is it possible that South Africa is home to the highest number of asylum seekers in the world?

When Africa Check was asked to investigate similar claims back in 2013, it found that asylum seeker data supplied by both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs was “flawed, inaccurate, and sharply contradictory” – and that statements made to South African media, that the country had received the “highest number of asylum applications worldwide” – were unproven.

Despite this, international media reports continue to list South Africa as being the country with “the most asylum seekers awaiting determination”.

In June 2016 the UNHCR published a new report on global trends in forced displacement, based on 2015 data. According to the report, by the end of 2015, the number of asylum claims in South Africa had risen to 1,096,063 – a rather startling figure considering that, in the previous reporting period (2014), South Africa had listed only 463,900 pending asylum claims.

The UNHCR report was quickly picked up by local media, with headlines stating that there were “1 million asylum seekers” in South Africa.

The UNHCR report, however, explained that the increase was not due to an actual spike in numbers of people but rather due to a “change in methodology due to the historical underreporting [by South African officials] of this population”. The report added that just 62,200 new applications for asylum had been made in South Africa in 2015.  

But is the total number of asylum seekers and unresolved claims reported by the UNHCR accurate?

The asylum process

Hundreds of refugees, mostly from other African countries, queue outside the South African Department of Home Affairs to apply for extensions of their asylum seeker permits, and other similar documents, on 20 June 2013 in the centre of Cape Town. Photo: AFP/RODGER BOSCH
Hundreds of refugees queue outside South Africa's Department of Home Affairs to apply for extensions of their asylum seeker permits, and other similar documents, on 20 June 2013, in the centre of Cape Town. Photo: Rodger Bosch/AFP

Legally speaking, a refugee in South Africa is defined as a person who has fled their “place of habitual residence” owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, tribe, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

This includes people who are forced to flee their country of origin as a result of “external aggression, occupation, foreign domination” or events that “seriously” disrupt public order. An asylum seeker is a person who is seeking recognition as a refugee and whose status has yet to be determined.

Dependents of such a person also fall under the definition. In order to become a refugee and avail oneself of particular protections – including the right to stay – a person must lodge a claim for asylum with the South African government.

This initiates a process by which the asylum seeker can motivate to the government that he/she fulfils the legal criteria and should be granted refugee status. This application is then adjudicated and, depending on the outcome, can be appealed or later reviewed if unsatisfactory.

Statistics recorded in a 'poor manner'

Statistical adjustment or not, the UNHCR report’s claim that, by the end of 2015, there were 1,096,063 outstanding decisions on asylum status in South Africa would represent approximately a third of all open asylum claims worldwide.

But the report also carries an additional note suggesting that the high figure is due to the South African legal framework for asylum applications having no provision for the withdrawal of asylum applications once lodged.

Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) pointed out that the department of home affairs “has for many years recorded the statistics in a poor manner, which did not remove persons from the system and continued to count even persons who had moved out of the asylum system.”

The department of home affairs was asked to comment but had not responded by the time of publication.

What does the data say?

A foreign national gets his finger prints taken by a Home Affairs officials prior to returning to Zimbabwe from a temporary refugee camp. Photo: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP
A foreign national gets his finger prints taken by a Home Affairs officials prior to returning to Zimbabwe from a temporary refugee camp. Photo: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP

Both the UNHCR and the department of home affairs have made limited data available on the number of asylum seekers in the country. In the case of the government, the most recent data comes via a presentation to the portfolio committee on home affairs summarising the trends in asylum seekers between 2006 and 2015.

According to the presentation, 1,082,669 asylum cases were lodged during that period. For South Africa to have over a million pending asylum decisions by the end of 2015 would require the government to have failed in nearly all asylum applications lodged in the last decade.

Is this plausible?

According to the same presentation, 62,159 asylum applications were lodged in 2015. Of these, 2,499 were approved for refugee status while 58,141 were denied, suggesting that all the applications in the 2015 period were dealt with.

However, 14,093 were appealed, and of these 12,361 remained open into 2016. This suggests that of the 62,159 cases opened in 2015, approximately 23% remained open. This is a significantly lower rate than what would be required to produce a backlog of one million cases over 10 years, assuming the government’s ability to close cases remained more or less constant.

UNHCR data obtained from its population statistics database on the number of annual asylum applications matches the data in the presentation to the portfolio committee up to 2011, but diverges slightly from 2012 onwards. By the end of 2014, according to the UNHCR database, South Africa had 369,393 pending cases. Adding in the 2015 backlog of still-open claims from government data (12,361), South Africa would have at most 381,754 pending claims at the end of 2015.

According to both sets of data, then, South Africa may well have received over a million applications for asylum between 2006 and 2014, but this is a different claim to saying that South Africa currently has a million unclosed asylum applications (or individual applicants).

Conclusion: data suggests less than 400,000 pending asylum applications

Setting aside the pending cases figure of 1,096,063 for the moment and using instead the largest possible backlog estimated earlier (381,754), South Africa would still have the second-highest number of currently-open asylum cases worldwide, just less than Germany (420,625).

It is worth noting, however, that there are important distinctions to be made between having the “largest number of unresolved applications in 2015” and having “the largest number of applications in 2015”.

New asylum applications received in South Africa in 2015 totalled 62,159. In the same period, Germany reported that it received  approximately 1.1 million asylum seekers (although the actual number of processed applications was much lower). The same UNHCR report states that, in 2015, South Africa was only the tenth-largest recipient of asylum seekers.

Ramjathan-Keogh of SALC explains that South Africa’s high number is the result of “slow and ineffective asylum processing which keeps people in asylum limbo for many years; instead of processing them so that applicants are either granted or refused asylum”, rather than because the country is receiving more asylum seekers than anywhere else in the world.

South Africa, therefore, did have the second-largest multi-year backlog of unsettled asylum cases in the world in 2015, but the number of pending cases is not as high as 1,096,063.

Edited by Laura Grant and Nechama Brodie

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