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2015 UNHCR country operations profile - South Africa

| Overview |

Working environment

UNHCR 2015 South Africa country operations map

  • South Africa's national legislation incorporates the basic principles of refugee protection, including freedom of movement, the right to work, and access to basic social services. However, some public institutions do not recognize refugees' permits, preventing them from benefitting fully from these rights. The current socio-economic environment - high unemployment, poor service delivery, and economic inequality - has strained relations between refugees, asylum-seekers and host populations.

  • Reaching refugees remains a challenge for UNHCR as most reside in urban areas.

  • South Africa continues to be a major destination for asylum-seekers, as well as migrants and others seeking better economic and social opportunities. There are confirmed reports of human smuggling and trafficking.

  • The asylum system is overwhelmed. The large number of applications has created a backlog, affecting the quality and efficiency of refugee status determination (RSD). Without a comprehensive immigration system, migrant workers and others sometimes try to make use of the asylum system to stay legally and gain access to South Africa's services. The Government is establishing a border-management agency to regulate immigration and, in July 2014, new regulations came into effect.

  • RSD is carried out by the South African Government. In 2015, it will continue to support international efforts to protect and assist refugees through providing access to health facilities, schools and social services.

People of concern

The majority of refugees and asylum-seekers in the South Africa operation have fled the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the security situation in Somalia or are individuals who claim to have faced persecution in Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.

There are approximately 65,000 recognized refugees in South Africa. Many of them have been there for years. In addition, at the end of 2013, there were 230,000 asylum-seekers awaiting decisions, according to Department of Home Affairs figures.

In January 2014, the Government of South Africa publicly stated that it is considering a visa for Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) economic migrants, which may reduce new asylum applications.

UNHCR 2015 planning figures for South Africa
Type of population Origin January 2015 December 2015
Total in country Of whom assisted
Total in country Of whom assisted
Total 315,000 63,000 331,500 66,300
Refugees Dem. Rep. of the Congo 15,000 3,000 16,000 3,200
Ethiopia 9,600 1,920 11,600 2,320
Somalia 24,000 4,800 27,000 5,400
Various 20,400 4,080 22,900 4,580
Asylum-seekers Dem. Rep. of the Congo 8,500 1,700 9,000 1,800
Ethiopia 4,600 920 4,400 880
Various 189,900 37,980 194,600 38,920
Zimbabwe 43,000 8,600 46,000 9,200

| Response |

Needs and strategies

The main needs of refugees remain access to: documentation; a fair and functioning asylum system; basic social services, provided in national legislation and policy; occasional emergency assistance for the most vulnerable, including shelter and food; and social cohesion programmes.

UNHCR's approach continues to focus on enhancing strategic partnerships and strengthening coordination in its main areas of intervention. In 2015, the Office will advocate that the current asylum space be preserved, allowing refugees and asylum-seekers to work, study and access health and social services. UNHCR will continue to provide technical support and advice to the Department of Home Affairs, promote self-reliance, and enable local integration. Short-term material assistance will be provided for vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers who cannot access other essential assistance, such as shelter and food, until they can benefit from local charitable or governmental social services.

The Office will intensify efforts to ensure that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence receive the necessary support and assistance. Resettlement will continue to be a protection tool for individuals with critical needs. Special efforts will be made to pursue preventive actions and advocacy, including awareness campaigns, conflict resolution programmes and other community interventions aimed at promoting social cohesion.

| Implementation |


UNHCR's main partner in South Africa will continue to be the Department of Home Affairs. Cooperation is established through the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). Development actors will help create livelihood opportunities. As the lead agency for the Protection Working Group, UNHCR will provide strategic leadership and direction on international protection issues. It will continue to collaborate closely with relevant Government authorities, other UN agencies, civil society, and other stakeholders. UNHCR is involved in the elaboration and implementation of the UN Strategic Cooperation Framework (UNSCF) with sister UN agencies and the Government.

2015 UNHCR partners in South Africa
Implementing partners
NGOs: The Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training and Advocacy; Cape Town Refugee Centre, Caritas Swaziland, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Displaced and Migrants Persons Support Programme, Future Families, Jesuit Refugee Service; Lawyers for Human Rights and Refugee Social Services, the Study Trust.
Others: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, University of Cape Town (UCT) - Refugee Rights Clinic
Operational partners
Government agencies: City Councils of Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Polokwane and Tshwane; Department of Basic Education; Department of Health; Department of Home Affairs; Department of International Relations and Cooperation; Department of Social Development; national and provincial disaster management centres; provincial Governments of Gauteng, Eastern Cape, KwaZuluNatal, Limpopo, and Western Cape; South Africa Social Security Agency, South African Police Service, and the South African Human Rights Commission
NGOs: Black Sash, Child Welfare South Africa, Childline South Africa, Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, ICMC, Lifeline, National Alliance for the Development of Community Advice Offices, RefugePoint, Sonke Gender Justice, Save the Children, and Scalabrini
Others: ICMC, ICRC, African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), IOM, UN Information Center, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, OCHA, and the University of South Africa (UNISA)

| Financial information |

A significant drop in new asylum-seeker arrivals has led to a decrease in requirements, from USD 37.6 million in 2013 to USD 26.7 million in 2014.

In 2015, the comprehensive-needs budget has increased by three per cent to USD 27.3 million, due to a rise in the cost of living and fuel prices, as well as to the inclusion of a budget for Namibia where UNHCR's presence is expected to be phased out by mid-2015.

This budget has been drawn up to address: regional resettlement projects; the RSD process; registration of people of concern; public information and voluntary repatriation; the protection and assistance of refugees and asylum-seekers in urban areas of South Africa; and programmes to address statelessness in the region.

Source: UNHCR Global Appeal 2015 Update



Statistical Snapshot*
* As at June 2015
  1. Country or territory of asylum or residence.
  2. Persons recognized as refugees under the 1951 UN Convention/1967 Protocol, the 1969 OAU Convention, in accordance with the UNHCR Statute, persons granted a complementary form of protection and those granted temporary protection. It also includes persons in a refugee-like situation for whom refugee status has, for practical or other reasons, not been ascertained. In the absence of Government figures, UNHCR has estimated the refugee population in many industrialized countries based on 10 years of individual asylum-seeker recognition.
  3. Persons whose applications for asylum or refugee status are pending as at 30 June 2015 at any stage in the asylum procedure.
  4. Refugees who have returned to their place of origin during the first half of 2015. Source: country of origin and asylum.
  5. Persons who are displaced within their country and to whom UNHCR extends protection and assistance. It also includes people in IDP-like situations. This category is descriptive in nature and includes groups of persons who are inside their country of nationality or habitual residence and who face protection risks similar to those of IDPs but who, for practical or other reasons, could not be reported as such.
  6. IDPs protected/assisted by UNHCR who have returned to their place of origin during the first half of 2015.
  7. Refers to persons who are not considered as nationals by any State under the operation of its law. This category refers to persons who fall under the agency's statelessness mandate because they are stateless according to this international definition, but data from some countries may also include persons with undetermined nationality.
  8. Refers to individuals who do not necessarily fall directly into any of the other groups but to whom UNHCR may extend its protection and/or assistance services. These activities might be based on humanitarian or other special grounds.
The data are generally provided by Governments, based on their own definitions and methods of data collection.
A dash (-) indicates that the value is zero, not available or not applicable.

Source: UNHCR/Governments.
Compiled by: UNHCR, FICSS.
Residing in South Africa [1]
Refugees [2] 114,512
Asylum Seekers [3] 798,080
Returned Refugees [4] 0
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) [5] 0
Returned IDPs [6] 0
Stateless Persons [7] 0
Various [8] 0
Total Population of Concern 912,592
Originating from South Africa [1]
Refugees [2] 426
Asylum Seekers [3] 840
Returned Refugees [4] 0
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) [5] 0
Returned IDPs [6] 0
Various [8] 0
Total Population of Concern 1,266
Government Contributions to UNHCR
2013 Contributions Breakdown
Total contribution in USD: 337,385 [rank: 34]
Total contribution in currency: 286,100 (CHF); 26,148 (USD)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 311,237 [rank: 25]
Donor ranking per GDP: 50
Donor ranking per capita: 55
2013 Contributions chart
Contributions since 2000
More info 21,264
As at 15 January 2015
More info 337,385
Total contribution in USD: 337,385 [rank: 34]
Total contribution in currency: 286,100 (CHF); 26,148 (USD)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 311,237 [rank: 25]
Donor ranking per GDP: 50
Donor ranking per capita: 55
More info 275,005
Total contribution in USD: 275,005 [rank: 38]
Total contribution in currency: 229,999 (CHF); 26,145 (USD)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 190,186 [rank: 28]
Donor ranking per GDP: 56
Donor ranking per capita: 61
More info 610,288
Total contribution in USD: 610,288 [rank: 30]
Total contribution in currency: 562,563 CHF
Donor ranking per GDP: 35
Donor ranking per capita: 38
More info 178,909
Total contribution in USD: 178,909 (rank: 36)
Total contribution in currency: 184,449 CHF
Donor ranking per GDP: 43
Donor ranking per capita: 47
2009 0
More info 145,985
Total contribution in USD: 145,985 (rank: 37)
Total contribution in currency: 1,000,000 (ZAR)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): -
Donor ranking per GDP: 40
Donor ranking per capita: 41
More info 268,033
Total contribution in USD: 268,033 (rank: 38)
Total contribution in currency: 327,000 (CHF)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): -
Donor ranking per GDP: 41
Donor ranking per capita: 42
More info 462,506
Total contribution in USD: 462,506 (rank: 49)
Total contribution in currency: 589,360 (CHF)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): -
Donor ranking per GDP: 31
Donor ranking per capita: 34
More info 382,413
USD 382,413 of which USD 168,462 (44%) earmarked at the subregional level, USD 92,654 (24%) earmarked at the country level and USD 121,297 (32%) affectés au niveau sectoriel / thématique.
More info 260,006
USD 260,006 of which USD 146,719 (56%) was earmarked at the subregional level and USD 113,287 (44%) earmarked at the country level.
More info 157,861
USD 157,861 of which was 100% earmarked at the subregional level.
2002 63,472
More info 400,186
USD 400,186 of which 100% earmarked.
More info 502,873
USD 502,873 of which 287,356 (57%) unrestricted and 215,517 (43%) earmarked.

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South Africa's Invisible People

In March 2011, UNHCR initiated a project with the South African non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), to tackle the issue of statelessness. The specific goals of the project were to provide direct legal services to stateless people and those at risk of statelessness; to engage government on the need for legal reform to prevent and reduce statelessness; to raise awareness about stateless people and their rights; and to advocate for the ratification of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness.

LHR had conceived the project a year earlier after noticing that large numbers of Zimbabwean-born asylum-seekers were telling its staff that they faced problems getting jobs, studying or setting up businesses - all allowed under South African law. They told LHR that when they applied for Zimbabwean passports, necessary to access these rights, they were informed by consular officials that they were no longer recognized as Zimbabwean citizens. This effectively made them stateless.

Since the project's inception, LHR has reached more than 2,000 people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. These people came from more than 20 different countries. It has identified numerous categories of concern in South Africa, both migrants and those born in the country.

The following photo set portrays some of the people who have been, or are being, helped by the project. The portraits were taken by photographer Daniel Boshoff. Some of the subjects asked that their names be changed.

South Africa's Invisible People

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa where registered refugees and asylum-seekers can legally move about freely, access social services and compete with locals for jobs.

But while these right are enshrined in law, in practice they are sometimes ignored and refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves turned away by employers or competing with the poorest locals for the worst jobs - especially in the last few years, as millions have fled political and economic woes in countries like Zimbabwe. The global economic downturn has not helped.

Over the last decade, when times turned tough, refugees in towns and cities sometimes became the target of the frustrations of locals. In May 2008, xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other parts of the country, killing more than 60 people and displacing about 100,000 others.

In Atteridgeville, on the edge of the capital city of Pretoria - and site of some of the worst violence - South African and Somali traders, assisted by UNHCR, negotiated a detailed agreement to settle the original trade dispute that led to the torching of Somali-run shops. The UN refugee agency also supports work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to counter xenophobia.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South AfricaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South Africa

Living in Pretoria as a refugee or asylum-seeker is challenging. Most either live rough on the streets or in cramped apartments in townships. There are also tensions with locals because of the perception that foreigners get a better deal than South African citizens.
Top business partners renew supportPlay video

Top business partners renew support

Executives from Manpower, Young & Rubicam, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Microsoft visit UNHCR operations in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia.
Zimbabweans in South AfricaPlay video

Zimbabweans in South Africa

While Zimbabwe's main political rivals have agreed to hold power-sharing talks, there are continued reports of instability and violence in the country. The flow of Zimbabweans seeking asylum in neigbouring South Africa is growing, rather than ebbing. The UN refugee agency reports that there are more and more women and children joining the exodus.