Strengthening online systems to make asylum and refugee permits accessible across the digital divide
The Covid-19 pandemic saw the Department of Home Affairs introducing an online emailing system for asylum and refugee permits applications and renewals, in a bid to provide remote civic services while Refugee Reception Offices remained closed. However, this online emailing system poses barriers to access to information because it is not user-friendly or data-free. This article outlines the benefits of an enhanced online application system for asylum seeker and refugee permits while maintaining the usefulness of walk-in Refugee Reception Offices to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not turned away and deported for expired permits.
Online application – Asylum seeker – refugee – access to information
Citation: C Chitengu, Strengthening online systems to make asylum and refugee permits accessible across the digital divide ALT Advisory Insights 2022 (4) (17 August 2022).
THE PRINCIPLE OF NON-REFOULMENT?
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark, you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.” The first stanza of Warsen Shire’s poem ‘Home’ aptly captures the distress and desperation within which refugees and asylum seekers find themselves. A crippling desperation and destitute situation that warrants the principle of non-refoulment, meaning, when a refugee or asylum seeker arrives at the border of any state, that state is obliged by international law to accept them into its country and not deport or send them back to their countries of origin until such a time warrants that they may return home.
The principle does not oblige the state to document the asylum seeker but rather obliges the state to adopt and implement procedures to determine the status of refugees at a national level. These procedures toward status determination in South Africa are within the ambit of Refugee Reception Offices (“RROs”). There are five RROs in South Africa located in Gqeberha, Pretoria, Musina, Durban, and Cape town. All five of these offices have been opened and closed at different times for varying reasons before the Covid-19 pandemic which ushered the closure of all RROs for two years. In 2011 the Gqeberha (then Port Elizabeth) RRO was closed with the intention of moving the offices to the border to facilitate applications upon entry, but was reopened in 2018 in the same location. The Cape Town RRO was closed in June 2012 and remains closed to date. In April 2022, the Department of Home Affairs (“DHA”) announced that new refugee and asylum permit applications will be accepted from the 3 May 2022 and maintained that new applications would have to be made online.
ONLINE EMAIL APPLICATION SYSTEM
In April 2021, the online renewal permit system was introduced by the DHA for holders of asylum seeker permits and refugee status permits to extend the validity of their permits without having to physically go to RRO in compliance with Covid-19 social distancing restrictions. The online system simply required asylum seekers and refugees to renew their permits via email. Applicants were instructed to send an email to the DHA with their permit number in the subject line and await a response with further instructions to fill out a form which should be sent back with a scanned copy of the current permit or affidavit in the event that the visa was lost or stolen. A final decision would then be made and sent back to the applicant on email with a letter instructing the applicant to go to a specific RRO and collect their permit. This skeleton “online system” for asylum seeker and refugee permit renewal has been met with much disdain for its lack of consideration of the data costs required for emailing, inability to track one’s application, the requirement of an email address, the absence of satellite centres to assist applicants with setting up email addresses and the overall unfriendly user experience.
This emailing system pales in comparison to the online visa renewal system for other immigration services through the Visa Facilitation Services Global (“VFS Global”). VFS Global services existed before Covid-19 restrictions were implemented and assists its government clients such as the DHA with the administrative tasks for visa renewal such as online applications, document submission appointments as well as collection appointments to the exclusion of asylum and refugee permits. Importantly, the applicants who use the VFS Global application site for visa applications and renewals are required to pay an administrative fee. While asylum and refugee applicants that are processed by RROs are not required to pay a fee. However, this does not absolve the DHA from providing efficient civic services because applicants do not pay an administration fee. While it is common cause that South African citizens also receive inefficient civic services from the DHA, the level of risk asylum seekers and refugees face by not renewing their permits in a timely manner has dire consequences on their constitutional rights to access basic education (Section 29), social security (section 27) and freedom of movement (Section 21), among others, for fear of deportation.
Despite the reopening of the RROs the DHA has not made any changes to its online application system to ensure its utility and equitable access. Requests for renewals are still expected to be done via email. This approach the DHA attributes to its efforts to “ensure that services are provided humanely and in a coordinated and efficient manner”.
HOW TO NARROW THE DIGITAL DIVIDE?
It is as an incident of the constitutional rights that risk being violated, that it is in the best interests of the applicants that the DHA makes use of a zero-rated, user-friendly website to facilitate asylum and refugee permit renewals and new applications. Zero-rated websites are provided for by an agreement with an internet service provider to facilitate the use of a particular website without requiring data usage. There was a proliferation of zero-rated websites during the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa to increase access to education in the absence of contact learning. By making the process to refugee and asylum permit renewal freely available, the digital divide can be narrowed. Additionally, online application systems should have options to translate the website language to one that the applicant can read and understand. This will empower the applicant with information and aid them in developing their own agency in their permit application process, making them less susceptible to scams and corruption.
The option of an efficient zero-rated application portal will also reduce travel costs for applications. Particularly those refugees and asylum seekers residing in Cape Town who would be required to travel to the closest RRO, that being the Gqeberha office 748 km away, to submit their applications and collect their permits. Online permit renewals are an important public service that should be accessible to all and where computer and cell phone literacy bars applicants from utilising online services, applicants should be permitted to make their way to RROs near them for guidance on how to submit online applications or be permitted to apply in person.
Asylum and refugee permit applications do not have to exclusively be online or in person. However, creating efficient options that are accessible by way of zero-rated multilingual online websites or alternatively open and time-efficient RROs can contribute to reducing the number of outstanding permit applications for determination.
Ensuring equitable access to information and processes to document refugees and asylum seekers are fundamental to the enjoyment of their human rights especially for this group of persons whose deportation, for not being able to access permit applications, has life-altering consequences. These consequences are sharply defined in Shire’s poem where “home is the barrel of the gun, and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore”.
* Christy is Tech Rights Fellow at ALT Advisory.