S/Africa, UN sign historic deal on asylum seekers

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South Africa and the United Nations on Tuesday signed a migration accord that both sides believe would solve the longstanding plight of 185,000 foreigners seeking asylum in the country.

With the signing of the deal between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the UN Refugees Agency, the asylum seekers would now have an opportunity to have their applications heard for a decision, officials said.

Dubbed “a historic agreement”, the deal is expected to eliminate delays and a backlog in decisions that have piled up for years, with the Ministry of Home Affairs saying that it took its “domestic and international responsibility towards asylum seekers and refugees very seriously.”

“Everybody who enters our country is protected by our Constitution and Bill of Rights,” Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said.

The signing of the agreement, however, follows criticism from Amnesty International on Pretoria’s lacklustre attitude in grant hearings to the asylum seekers.

Describing South Africa's asylum system as “broken”, the rights group said the delays left “thousands of applicants undocumented, thereby causing tension with locals.”

“In persisting with a broken system that leaves those trying to claim asylum undocumented and in limbo, the government is causing a divide and inflaming tensions between South African citizens and fellow Africans living in the country,” Shenilla Mohamed, executive director of Amnesty International South Africa, said.

Responding to the criticism, a South African official said his country had some of the world's most progressive asylum policies, allowing foreigners to apply for refugee status within the country itself and to work during the process.

The asylum seekers are mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to official statistics.

NM/jn/APA