Rita* fled the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Africa in 2009 after suffering unspeakable horrors and grave violations to her rights amid ongoing violence.
The department of home affairs immediately recognised her as a refugee but when she was asked to pay a large amount of money to receive her refugee permit, Rita refused and approached a lawyer, knowing that services rendered by home affairs are free. Attempts to secure her permit without approaching a court were fruitless and aggravated the situation. When she delivered a letter from her lawyers to home affairs’ officers, her refugee permit was torn up and the police were called. Despite having no reason to do so, she was arrested.
While we often hear about corruption within government departments, we rarely read about its impact on individuals, our society and the state.
Although the original action was a clear violation of law, home affairs vigorously opposed Rita’s court bid to obtain a temporary permit, resulting in her remaining undocumented and vulnerable. Home affairs’ stance forms part of an alarming trend in which it opposes matters in which it is obvious that they have broken the law. Not only does this frustrate the objects of the Refugees Act — legislation designed to protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society — but it also contradicts the home affairs’ own policy of regularising refugees and asylum-seekers. This leaves Rita in an untenable position after first being a victim of corruption by low-level officials, then having the state sanction this behaviour by opposing her case, and continuing to deny her legal status.
For Rita, there are very real effects produced as a direct result of this stance. She is continually arrested and has spent time in jail, often with criminals, until her eventual and inevitable release. On some of the occasions that she was arrested she has endured sexual harassment at the hands of police who exploit her vulnerability and illegal status to avoid penalties. Rita is unable to work to support her children, one of whom suffers from chronic illness. As she is also unable to access social security on account of being undocumented she is either forced to trade illegally or rely on charitable institutions. When she does trade informally, her operations are shut down and her goods confiscated. On one occasion that her goods were stolen she was turned away from police stations when she tried to report it because she could not produce her refugee permit.
Home affairs’ stance does not only have negative consequences for Rita but also for South Africans. While many South Africans may not be particularly concerned about the treatment of one foreign family, they should nonetheless be concerned about a government that habitually violates the law, holds itself above the law in its disrespect for judicial pronouncement and is unaccountable to the public. There is little reason to believe this treatment will not extend itself to South Africans, in fact, there is evidence to support it.
Rita’s case, home affairs’ refusal to issue her permit means she has no choice but to continue to look to the courts to enforce, uphold and protect her rights. Rita has been to court three times. The stance taken by the state in opposing her case has wasted thousands of rands of taxpayer money on nothing more than the violation of the law. This is money that could have been used on the provision of important services necessary to meet human dignity, such as stocking a school library, providing a police station with working computers with the aim of efficiency and the reduction of crime, or building or improving toilets in impoverished areas.
All this is the result of one instance of corruption that has become a rising trend. It has been four years since Rita was asked to pay for her permit. She remains undocumented while in the process of securing another court date to hold home affairs in contempt of court. She is unable to return to her country where she would face a real risk of persecution and has thus been thrust into a state of limbo.
It is often said that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its most vulnerable members. The contemptible manner in which home affairs has treated her illustrates their disregard for those that need their protection most — women and children — and that is telling in our society.
* Not her real name
Anjuli Maistry is an attorney with the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme in Johannesburg.