Refugees and asylum seekers

Note: This article is currently under review as the regulations covering immigration and visas have been changed. In the meantime, please visit the Department of Home Affairs at for more information.


Like other countries, South Africa is obliged to grant protection to refugees. Although it did not recognise refugees until 1993, it became a signatory to the UN and Organisation of African Unity conventions on refugees after its transition to democracy.

The 1998 Refugees Act established the institutions and procedures to offer protection to those who are fleeing persecution and instability in their home countries.

According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, South Africa has a “liberal asylum legislation that incorporates all basic principles of refugee protection including freedom of movement, the right to work and access to basic social services”.

The Government of South Africa supports international efforts to protect and assist refugees and asylum-seekers, in particular by providing them with access to health facilities, schools and social services.

Note: This information is meant to serve as a guide only. Requirements for immigration to South Africa are subject to change, and each application is treated as an individual case. Always make enquiries before travelling to South Africa.

What’s the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee?

The UN Convention defines a refugee as someone who has fled their home country and has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, tribe, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This includes people who are forced to flee their country of origin as a result of external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events that seriously disrupt public order.

An asylum seeker is a person who is seeking recognition, while a refugee is someone whose application is still under consideration by the government.

How to apply for refugee status

A Refugee Act governing the admission of asylum seekers was passed in 1998, and became effective in 2000.

A refugee can apply for permanent residence after five years of continuous residence since the date of asylum being granted. Only recognised refugees can apply for identity documents and an asylum application should be adjudicated within 180 days, including the appeal.

To apply for refugee status, you need an asylum seeker’s permit from a Refugee Reception Office. These are located in Pretoria (Marabastad and Tirro), Durban (Greyville) and Musina.

What institutions and organisations help refugees?

What are the main issues for refugees in South Africa?

The high numbers of applications for refugee status has led to backlogs and have had an impact on the quality and efficiency of the refugee status determination (RSD) process, the UNHCR says. “Social service programmes also face challenges in supporting asylum-seekers who are granted access to services in South Africa while awaiting a decision on their status.”

According to the Department of Home Affairs, approximately 230 000 asylum- seekers were awaiting a decision on their status as refugees at both first instance and appeal stages at the end of 2012. The total number of recognised refugees stands at around 65 000.

Many refugees in South Africa arrive via several asylum or transit countries. They come expecting to improve their lives drastically, but many end up disappointed when they fail to find jobs or access social services.

Unlike other African countries, South Africa does not have any refugee camps. Asylum seekers and refugees live in urban regions and survive largely without assistance. If they need support, they approach local government structures. Thus capacity building among key professionals has become one of UNHCR’s major objectives in South Africa.

In some instances the increase in the number of refugees in the country has created tensions with South African citizens, many of whom have blamed escalating crime on illegal immigrants and refugees. Xenophobia has become a problem in some areas of the country.

The UN Refugee Agency says South Africa is a major destination country for asylum- seekers as well as migrants and others looking for better economic and social opportunities. There are confirmed reports of human smuggling and trafficking, as well as instances of South Africa being used as a gateway to Europe, America and other countries.

What can I do if I’ve been treated badly?

If any of your rights, as defined in the Bill of Rights, have been violated, you can file an online complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission.

Other programmes and institutions that can assist with xenophobia:

SAinfo reporter, incorporating information from the UNHCR

Reviewed: March 2014

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