About 2000 Angolan refugees – many of whom have been living in South Africa for as long as 18 years – face deportation following the withdrawal of their refugee status.
And those from at least three other African countries are next on the list.
This is part of the government’s new strategy to repatriate refugees once peace and stability have returned to their countries.
Home Affairs officials confirmed this week that refugees from Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone could also face deportation.
These countries have been declared safe by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which over the past seven years has declared a “cessation of refugee status” for all four countries.
The move by the government has been described by one migration expert as a possible strategy to reduce the number of asylum-seekers in South Africa, of which there are about 230 000.
Five months ago xenophobic violence aimed mainly at immigrants from Africa broke out around the country, and hundreds of undocumented foreigners have been arrested in the government’s Operation Fiela.
Home Affairs spokesman Mayihlome Tshwete said the cabinet had decided on the Angolan cessation date in line with a declaration by the UNHCR.
“Angola was the first to be recommended. Other countries that the government needs to make a decision on are Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone,” he said, adding that the government recognised the fundamental changes that had taken place in Angola.
“Refugees would be in a position to reclaim citizenship of their country … because the circumstances that recognised such a person as a refugee no longer exist,” said Tshwete.
After a decision was taken to stop refugee status for a country and after various assessments were made, nationals from that country would be afforded a time period to “regularise” their stay in South Africa or be deported, he said.
In 2013 Angola became the first country to have its refugee status discontinued by Home Affairs.
Refugees were given two-year temporary residence permits. These have begun expiring and all will have expired by January 2016.
Among Angolans facing imminent deportation is Rosie – who did not want her real name published – and her three siblings, who fled the Angolan war with their father in 1997.
When they arrived in South Africa their dad abandoned them at a shelter in Cape Town.
Rosie was just 10 years old and her siblings were aged between five and eight.
Now, 18 years later, the four siblings have been told they are no longer welcome in South Africa and must return to Angola.
“We don’t know Angola as ‘home’. We want to get student visas so we can stay here. We don’t have anything to go back to,” said Rosie.
Miranda Madikane, director of Scalabrini, a migrations organisation, said getting permanent residency was an arduous process.
“These Angolans have been in South Africa a long time and are contributing to the economy.
“But they are generally not skilled enough to extend work or business permits, which require high levels of skills and/or large amounts of capital.
“The immigration requirements are onerous for former refugees,” Madikane said.
Shirley Gunn, director of the Human Rights Media Centre, said refugees who wanted to remain in South Africa and were contributing to society should be allowed to stay.
But the process to become naturalised was fraught with delays and a lack of information, said Gunn.
A report by Scalabrini says many of those affected now have families in South Africa.
Some 89% of Angolans in South Africa are employed and 34% own businesses. Some 69% of their businesses employ locals, according to the report.
The report was presented to Home Affairs in April, but officials were unmoved.
“Home Affairs responded quickly and with interest to the research report by setting up a meeting, but were not moved to offer any special dispensation to affected Angolans,” Madikane said.
A report by the UNHCR showed that last year there were 232211 asylum-seekers and 65881 refugees in South Africa. Most were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
They were either fleeing conflict in their home countries or were individuals who claimed they would face persecution if they returned home.
Roni Amit, a senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society, said 90% of applications for refugee status in South Africa were rejected.
“[Home Affairs] is trying to reduce the number of asylum-seekers; it seems to be part of its strategy,” she said.
“South Africa does not have that many refugees, it has many asylum-seekers. But those numbers are also declining.”
Tshwete could not give time frames for the deportations.