Hordes of asylum seekers throng all SA Home Affairs offices

JOHANNESBURG-- A VISIT to any Department of Home Affairs refugee reception centre, as many asylum seekers will testify, is not for the faint-hearted.

To begin with, the morning on a day when one has to apply for refugee status or have their permits updated, begins as early as 5am with a task of finding a place in the queue, that is if the individual has not slept outside the offices to be the early bird the next morning.

As the day progresses, the queue swells, the temperatures rise and the situation gets tenser. Fights occasionally break out as fatigue sets in amid accusations of attempts to jump the queue by other asylum seekers.

The sluggishness with which some of the Home Affairs officials, relay instructions to the refugees through security guards, does little to calm the situation.

On one such day at Crown Mines, one of the refugee reception centres in Johannesburg, it gets worse as the office closes with hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees still unattended to.

It’s also an opportunity for vendors to make money through a selling a variety of foodstuffs to the foreign nationals, as hunger bites.

The fact that the office is located in an industrial area where there are no food outlets in the vicinity, works in the favour of the informal retailers.

Among those eking out a living from the flood of asylum seekers at these centres, is Andile Nkosi, who set up base as a vendor at Crown Mines two months ago.

“Vending is a lucrative exercise here,” he says with the satisfaction of a thriving entrepreneur.

“The fact that there are no shops around this place and given the large number of asylum seekers who come here, has given our business a massive boost. I feel sorry especially for the mothers and their babies that have to toil all day here, but I’m here to make money,” declared 27-year-old Nkosi, who sells an assortment of foodstuffs such as fruits, confectionery and cold drinks.

In the same trade and also expressing satisfaction with business, is Congolese-born Elle Lokose, who is also seeking refugee status, and her next visit for the next stage of her application is a long six months away.

“Business is brisk here. On a good day, I make hundreds of rands. I cannot give you the exact figure as this could attract other vendors, which would negatively affect our returns,” she says behind a makeshift table awash with a variety of goods such as cigarettes, fruits and scones.

A seemingly tactful businessperson, she also runs a makeshift kitchen that sells tea to fellow asylum seekers.

Elle, Nkosi and other fellow vendors might be content with what they make per day, but there are many among their customers who are not amused.

The refugees accuse the vendors of profiteering at the expense of the largely impoverished asylum seekers.

“These people are overcharging us. They charge almost double the prices that are charged elsewhere. This is not fair,” complained Zimbabwean-born asylum-seeker Steven Dondo.

Cicily Bel added: “Their food is not hygienic either. We are subjected to unclean food. How can the food be safe when it is sold in the open and there is no running water to wash the fruits? Some of us have children and they are badly exposed,” she said, a baby strapped to her back.

A vendor, who preferred only to be called by his surname Tshuma, saw things differently.

“If we are indeed overcharging and our food is not clean, why do they keep coming to us instead of buying where prices are lower and the food cleaner? I believe it’s frustration on the asylum seekers’ part that drives them to make these unfounded accusations,” said Tshuma.

Amid the counter accusations, the day progresses as usual at Crown Mines, the meandering queue not moving at all, frustrations building up among the visibly hungry asylum seekers, and the vendors making a killing in some cases–CAJ News.

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