JOHANNESBURG – South Africa, which receives more individual asylum requests than any other country, announced Thursday it is taking steps to cope with the influx.
The government's immigration department said in a statement that it faces an "immense challenge" and was extending hours at offices across the country that accept asylum applications from people who have traveled from as far away as Pakistan. Mkuseli Apleni, the department's top bureaucrat, also said police will help manage lines at the offices, where fights and stampedes have broken out.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees welcomed the moves. The agency's spokeswoman for southern Africa, Tina Ghelli, told The Associated Press that her agency is concerned that people fleeing oppression and violence are finding it difficult to get help because economic immigrants are abusing and overwhelming the system in South Africa.
According to UNHCR figures, more than 100,000 people sought asylum in South Africa last year. That was well above the next highest number of applications received, some 74,000 in the United States.
Kenya has more refugees, with more than 460,000 Somalis camped in the eastern part of that country, according to UNHCR figures. But Kenya welcomes Somalis as a class, rather than requiring each to apply for asylum, because of decades of violence and anarchy in Somalia.
Somalis make up the second largest group of asylum seekers in South Africa, according to the U.N. refugees agency. In South Africa, they are not confined to refugee camps and can work and receive state welfare benefits.
Most asylum applications are from Zimbabweans, whose neighboring country is gripped by political violence and economic uncertainty. Congolese, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis also apply, UNHCR said.
Xenophobic attitudes led to an explosion of violence against foreigners, particularly those from elsewhere in Africa, in some of South Africa's poorest communities in 2008.
Delays in processing asylum requests are also a problem. Apleni, the South African immigration official, said Thursday that officials have found a backlog of more than 150,000 applications that had been refused but are awaiting appeals reviews.
Despite a possibly cold welcome and bureaucratic delays, asylum seekers "still keep coming. I think it's just the possibility of a better life," UNHCR's Ghelli said.
Besides having the continent's biggest economy, South Africa has a liberal constitution that outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation, and that enshrines rights to join a union and have access to adequate housing, health care, food and water. While its promises may not always be fulfilled, the charter stands out not only in Africa, but in the world.