Top UN official lauds South Africa’s ‘progressive’ refugee policy
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres has commended the South African Government for its progressive policy on refugees and asylum seekers, including a commitment to ensure their access to basic services.
"If you look at the policy and legal statutes of South Africa, refugees enjoy one of the most advanced and progressive systems of protection in the world today," Mr. Guterres stated during a visit to the country – the last leg of a trip that also took him to Zambia and Mozambique.
Speaking at a meeting with refugees in Johannesburg, co-hosted by Minister of Home Affairs Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula, Mr. Guterres said there was no denying the South African Government's commitment to opening up services such as health and education to refugees, although authorities did face challenges in that regard.
The High Commissioner's visit comes at a critical period for the Ministry of Home Affairs as it strives to cope with an inflow of migrants and refugees. A refugee-producing country a decade ago, South Africa now has to deal with the challenges of a refugee-receiving country.
Refugees told Mr. Guterres they were concerned about obstacles to their integration in society, despite documentation that entitles them to virtually all the rights of citizens in the country – including the right to work and access to primary education and basic health services.
Mr. Guterres said he was humbled by Minister Mapisa-Nqakula's recognition of the existing problems, “because the responsibility of a government is not to protect itself but to acknowledge its problems and commit to work for change."
"UNHCR is working with a government that recognizes its challenges and is determined to work on rectifying them. Our role in South Africa is to try to help the government in order to facilitate the improvement of protection and assistance given to refugees," he added.
With UNHCR’s help, the Ministry launched a major effort last year to clear the backlog of asylum applications – some going back several years. South Africa received 53,000 asylum applications last year – more than any other country in the world.
During his visit, the High Commissioner also met President Thabo Mbeki and other senior officials for talks on the humanitarian and protection needs of refugees. He also toured offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg that deal with the backlog of asylum applications.