Syrian refugee family stuck in limbo in South Africa

Family among the few Syrians seeking refuge in Cape Town sees plight worsen since rejection of asylum case last year.

Syrian asylum seekers
The UNHCR says that according to their records, 40 Syrians have applied for asylum in South Africa [Ganeef Galvaan/Al Jazeera]

A Syrian family from Damascus whose asylum application in South Africa was declared “unfounded” more than six months ago is stuck in limbo as their case remains under appeal.

Omar Banian, his wife Reem and their three young daughters – Shahd, Rand and Joudi – travelled from Damascus to South Africa via Lebanon and Turkey in March 2015.

The family had reportedly escaped Damascus, selling their belongings and travelling to Cape Town after getting a tourist visa from the South African embassy in the Syrian capital, according to Mustaque Holland, a legal adviser to the family.


While the family is not facing imminent deportation, according to the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), their day-to-day lives are hindered by a need to travel to Pretoria on an ongoing basis to renew their permits.

Pretoria is some 1,500km from Cape Town and the journey takes about 15 hours by car.

The South African embassy in Damascus told Al Jazeera it would not comment without an official inquiry.

Mayihlome Tshwete, ministerial spokesman for the DHA, told Al Jazeera that no decision had yet been made about the family’s asylum application, saying that the Refugee Board would make that call when their case came up.

The family would be able to remain in South Africa as long as the case was under appeal, Tshwete said.

“They [the Home Affairs office] concluded that the case was “unfounded”, which means that certain parts of their application were considered true but some parts still needed further investigation before a decision could be made,” Tshwete said.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says that according to their records, 40 Syrians have applied for asylum in South Africa.

Stress and trauma

When the Banian family arrived in South Africa, they found themselves stranded in a small town outside Cape Town.

They were lucky to run into an Egyptian who connected them to the Moegammadiyah Mosque back in the Cape Town, which took them in and helped the family seek asylum.

Abdullah January, a trustee of the mosque, told Al Jazeera that although the family was in good health, the parents were struggling with stress and trauma from the ordeal.

“The father has been on antidepressants, related to the trauma of the past year,” January said.

He commended the local community for rallying behind the family, helping with supplies and essentials.

“A German woman with a home in Bo Kaap gave the family a place to stay, for no rent for the next year, as an act of goodwill.”

Al Jazeera was able to reach the Banians for comment, but they asked that all questions be directed to January.

The Banian family told local media they were humbled by the generosity of locals in South Africa [Ganeif Galvaan/Al Jazeera]
The Banian family told local media they were humbled by the generosity of locals in South Africa [Ganeif Galvaan/Al Jazeera]

The decision in July by a refugee status determination officer rejecting the family’s application for asylum in the country meant that they had to travel, almost every month, to Pretoria to renew their permit.

Their current permit expires at the end of February.

The appeal which the family launched and the ordeal in general have left them feeling “very despondent”, January said.

Tine Ghelli, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR, said her office had repeatedly alerted the government to the economic hardships arising from centralising the renewal process in Pretoria.

A local paper reported on Saturday that the presiding officer said that it was unclear if the father of the family, Omar Banian, faced a threat to his life back in Syria.

“According to the [department’s] country reports, it is stated that the government is trying harder to solve the conflict in the country. This is further confirmed by the Syrian constitution which guarantees the safety of the community or citizens,” Wiseman Kubheka, status determination officer, wrote in his report.

Tshwete said the official’s remarks were misunderstood.

“He did not say [that Syria was stable], he said the region they had come from in Syria was not at war. Coming from Syria does not predetermine whether you get asylum or not,” he said.

At least 250,000 people have been killed in Syria, and some 3 million forced to flee the country since the civil war began in 2011.

Though Damascus remains a regime stronghold and has escaped the main thrust of the violence, it has witnessed heavy bombardment and some areas remain under siege.

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa

Source: Al Jazeera