South Africa should consider temporarily declaring asylum seekers from certain Southern African countries as refugees, to keep up with the burgeoning numbers of migrants, particularly from Zimbabwe, according to a senior government official.
"It is within our minister's [South African Home Affairs Minister Mapisa-Nqakula] powers to declare groups of people as refugees for a period of time," said Florencia Belvedere, office manager of the Johannesburg Asylum Determination Centre. "This would assist us in processing the large numbers of southern Africans, who are mostly Zimbabweans, approaching our centre."
The process of assessing applications under the 1998 Refugee Act is not capable of dealing with the heavy influx, she said. "We have to take each case - one by one - that is why we are unable to keep up with demand. We can process between 300 and 400 people a day, but this is not enough in the face of the large numbers."
South Africa needs to rethink its system for assessing asylum seekers. The backlog of applications for refugee status dates back to the late 1990s, when people from troubled African countries became attracted to the wealth, relative peace and economic growth of South Africa after its transition to democracy.
Although an application is supposed to take six months to process, many of those looking to acquire refugee status have spent years waiting to be called for the interview that determines whether an application has been successful or not.
Loren Landau, director of University of Witwatersrand's Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP), said a broader regional approach by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) could help tackle the problem more effectively.
"What is needed is a regional solution, in which people are given some sort of SADC status. It has been talked about but repeatedly blocked by countries like South Africa. More bilateral agreements on movement from one country to another are definitely needed."
A possible expansion of the government's six-month identity (ID) card initiative for victims of South Africa's recent xenophobic attacks, to help people stuck in the backlog of applications, would not happen, said Landau.
"The six-month status under that initiative is fairly clear, and it only applies to people in the safety camps [set up to house victims of the recent xenophobia]. While I think there is a need for some sort of protection for these people, in the case of this ID scheme we would be back in the same situation in six months, and I don't see them [home affairs] developing a longer-term strategy."
The Refugee Backlog Project
In 2005 the Department of Home Affairs launched the Refugee Backlog Project (RBP) to reduce the estimated backlog of 150,000 applications for asylum that had built up from 1998 to 2004, and opened temporary RBP offices in Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg/Pretoria to fast track applications.
Yet the 2006/07 annual report of the Department of Home Affairs stated that over 89,000 applications for refugee status from 2006/07 were still to be processed.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, noted that of the 35,000 Zimbabweans who applied for asylum in South Africa in 2006 and 2007, only 500 were granted refugee status, according to official figures.
Critics say the department's attempt to clear the backlog have been relatively successful, but at the expense of allowing more recent asylum seekers to accumulate into another backlog.
An internal report - allegedly prepared by a team charged with assessing the RBP for the Department of Home Affairs - leaked to the media in June 2008, maintained that "the [backlog] situation requires a rescue mission."
South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper, which published parts of the leaked report, alleged the authors had stated that turnaround projections for the RBP were "way off target", plans were "inappropriate", and resource projections "inaccurate".
"Two and a half years since the start of the [Refugee] Backlog Project ... we see the same chaos we [the assessment team] first experienced when joining home affairs in September 2005, with a new backlog larger than the one that has just been effectively cleared," the report allegedly said.
Belvedere said home affairs staff had made good progress in upgrading the system since taking over operations at the Crown Mines reception centre near Johannesburg's central business district, but conceded there were many obstacles to overcome. The upgraded Crown Mines facility is a pilot project that could serve as a model for other regional asylum determination centres.
The influx continues to build
"When I arrived in May  we were only taking in 50 applicants a day and now we have brought that up to between 300 and 400, so progress is being made, but the whole process is in transition and it is not helped by the fact that on Thursdays and Fridays we are quite literally swamped by between 2,500 and 3,500 Zimbabweans who are seeking asylum," Belvedere said.
She insisted it was important to ensure that the turnaround strategy was implemented effectively in Johannesburg. "While I am impatient to see changes happening faster than they are, you can't skip stages for the sake of expediency. It is important to bring everyone along as we move forward; and as we move forward we need to cement in place what is behind us, so that others can use it as a template."
Figures recently obtained from the Department of Home Affairs by the South African History Archive, on behalf of the FMSP, revealed the extent of the influx of Zimbabweans into the country.
Between 2000 and the end of 2004, 10,181 Zimbabweans applied for asylum, whereas 56,397 applied between January 2005 and 1 April 2008. Of the total 66,578 applicants since 2000, 710 were granted refugee status and 4,040 rejected. Over 62,000 cases remain pending.
Landau said there were many reasons why the backlog had not been cleared, including a lack of skills and capacity among the staff.
"People doing evaluations in home affairs need a strong background in law and experience in dealing with asylum seekers so they know how to evaluate a person's case," he commented. "At present they are dealing with the straightforward cases and putting the tricky ones at the bottom of the pile."