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Bill opens asylum seekers` hearings to public

Source: Business Day, 11/08/2015

THE media and the public will now be allowed to attend asylum seekers` appeals when conducted following the adoption of the Refugee Amendment Bill. Parliament`s portfolio committee on home affairs adopted the bill last week. The bill would ease asylum seekers` appeals and refugees` applications to maintain their status in the country as it would fast-track both processes, the Department of Home Affairs said. In 2013, the Constitutional Court ruled that section 21 of the Refugee Act was unconstitutional because it restricted the media and the public`s access to refugee appeal hearings. In terms of the original act, asylum seekers` confidentiality and their information "must be ensured at all times", unless a refugee appeals authority may, on application, allow any person or the media to attend. Department of Home Affairs spokesman and deputy director-general Mayihlome Tshwete said the transparency introduced in the amendment bill protected the interests of genuine asylum seekers while filtering out those who did not have legitimate grounds to seek refugee status. "The amendments are meant to serve refugees and asylum seekers better," he said. "The system is currently being used as a loophole to enter the country. Genuine (applicants) ... suffer because they (are) viewed in the same way as those who are not genuine asylum seekers," Mr Tshwete said. But David Cote from Lawyers for Human Rights said that the organisation was concerned about the amendments to the Refugees Act, which proposed limitations to accessing the refugee system and restricting a prospective applicant`s right to work. "These limitations appear to be in direct contravention of SA`s international obligations in terms of the United Nations convention relating to refugees. "It (the bill) further introduces polygraph testing for (home affairs) officials, a wholly inadequate measure to prevent the widespread corruption within the refugee system," Mr Cote said. The amendments would have to be overhauled to ensure compliance with existing laws and obligations, he said. But Inkatha Freedom Party MP Sibongile Nkomo, who is on the committee, said: "It is important to do an assessment of who is here (in SA). If not, there will be unsavoury openings (in the country)." The amendments must now be deliberated in the National Assembly, after which they will come into effect by the end of next month.


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