It is a costly affair for asylum seekers at the Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Centre in Marabastad, Pretoria.
They’ve described the centre as a prison-like environment, where they are treated like dogs and forced to pay various bribes.
Several foreign nationals, speaking on condition of anonymity detailed how people “hang around” the centre to rob them. They also “force” them to pay a sum of money before they are allowed inside.
Standing near the entrance on Monday morning, News24 witnessed how foreign nationals were physically pushed away by people outside as they tried to enter.
Money was then exchanged, so that access could be granted.
The foreign nationals allege that the bribery process doesn’t stop once they get past security. They allege that officials also try to extort money from them and treat them with disdain.
The centre allows foreign nationals to renew their asylum status or to apply for asylum status in SA. They claim that, in order to get any form of service from home affairs officials, they have to hand over more money.
‘They just want money’
As the media attempted to speak to people already inside the refugee centre, a man identified as a home affairs official could be heard intimidating them.
“Hey move here, voetsek,” the official shouted as he banged on a mesh fence that separated the asylum seekers from the media. He later went and forcibly moved the nationals from where the media was standing.
“They treat us like a dog, they don’t do right. They just want money,” said one asylum seeker.
A woman from Cameroon, who came to the country in 2008, claimed that officials asked for money in order to get asylum papers.
“When you come in, there are guys that tell you: ‘This is the right queue and the other queue is fake, so give me money and I’ll put you on the right queue,'” she said.
“At times, they come and tell you that they have connections and if you want to be attended to on time: ‘Give us money; we will talk to our manager and our bosses to get your papers.'”
Bribes vary from R50 to R500, depending on what you need, she said.
She also alleged that foreigners were assaulted on the premises.
“There is also this worker in home affairs that they say is the security. He comes in with this very long whip. He says, if you don’t listen to him, he is going to whip you, and that whipping has been going on so much.”
‘There is no friendliness here’
The media accompanied DA Gauteng leader John Moody on Monday as he conducted an oversight visit. He said he received allegations of corruption from home affairs officials who work at the centre.
Moody and his contingent were originally denied access by a security guard manning one of the entrances. He was also pushed back by one of the guards.
Moody was eventually let in, after he held a meeting with the centre management.
“There are investigations taking place against quite a number of officials within this facility. They have a fraud and corruption unit that does investigations, and that is how I will be taking up complaints from members of the public who need assistance.”
Speaking about what he saw before meeting with the official, Moody said it was clear that foreign nationals were treated with utter contempt.
“People are intimidated, you can see it. They are not here coming to a state institution to have them render some assistance. It’s as if they are here at the mercy of these officials. There is no friendliness here.”
Department of Home Affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete, however, said they had made a number of interventions at the centre. He said that if there were incidents of corruption, names should be forwarded so that investigations could take place.
“The turnaround times at the centre have improved, technology being used has also improved. Let us not make sweeping generalisations that do damage to the good being done at the centre.”
Tshwete said the department took corruption seriously, but needed facts and names for them to further investigate.
“The DA has access to the department’s DG and minister, but [they] have never reported any corruption to any of those platforms. If there are incidents of corruption, give us statistics, tell us what happened and give us names so that we can investigate and look into it,” he said.