Police have urged asylum seekers, who claim they are forced to pay bribes at Pretoria Central police station, to lay a formal complaint.
Asylum seekers interviewed by GroundUp say police officers routinely demand an extra R300 as a bribe when they come to pay the R1 000 fine for staying too long in the country.
If they don't pay the bribe, they say, police ignore them for days until they bring the "cold drink" money. They say sometimes police threaten them with deportation if they refuse to pay.
Asylum seekers who overstay are given forms at the Desmond Tutu Refugee Centre in Pretoria to pay a R1 000 fine at the Pretoria Central police station.
Noma Ndlovu, a Zimbabwean national living in Midrand, has been seeking asylum in South Africa for more than five years.
Ndlovu says other asylum seekers had warned her to take an extra R300 when she went to the police to pay her overstay fine. But she did not take them seriously. When she got to the police station, she discovered that it was true. Police officers served only those who paid extra and left her unattended, she says.
She had to come back the next day with the extra money and only then was she issued with a receipt for the payment of the fine.
"The extra money is not written on the yellow receipt they give us. They only write R1 000," says Ndlovu.
Ndlovu says her asylum expired on Heritage Day in September. The refugee centre was closed on that day and she did not renew her permit. When she went the following week, home affairs officers were taking their time to serve people. When she was finally served two weeks later, officers told her that she had overstayed and had to pay a fine of R1 000 at the Pretoria Central police station.
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Brigadier Mathapelo Peters, provincial head police spokesperson in Gauteng, said police were aware of complaints that foreign nationals had to pay extra money for their applications to be expedited.
"However, none have come forth to lay a formal complaint," she said.
She said because the refugee centre was near the police station, "the station is inundated with foreign nationals whose asylum permits have expired, for purposes of application for overstay".
Police had arrested a man three weeks ago outside the Pretoria Central police station for taking money illegally from asylum seekers under the pretext of being a police officer, said Peters.
"Police wish to caution the public to refrain from taking shortcuts and to follow due processes, to avoid falling victim to fraudsters. Also, the police station has a dedicated office that specifically deals with applications for overstay by asylum seekers."
"It would assist if anyone who is aware of illegal activities to report to the police. Anonymous tip-offs can be given on the My SAPS app that can be downloaded onto any smartphone, or alternatively, by calling the Crime Stop number 08600 10111."
Gina Bingo, a Ghanian national from Mpumalanga, says she also paid the bribe with her fine last month. She says her permit expired in August because she did not get served for days when she went to the refugee centre.
"Everyone knows that police charge extra and take the money for themselves," she says.
"At first l took out R1 000 from my purse and handed it over together with my forms. Police ignored me while those who paid the bribe were served. In the end, l handed them the extra R300."
She says after paying the bribe, it did not take her long to get served.
Bingo works in a salon in Mpumalanga.
A Nigerian national from Yeoville, Blessing Khem, said she had to borrow money to pay both the fine and bribe. She works in a shop which sells hair accessories. Her employer told her not to return to work until she gets her permit renewed.
Khem says queues at the centre are getting longer, and there are not enough benches for everyone. Many asylum seekers stand or sit on the ground the whole day only to be dismissed at the end of the day without being served.
"Life for asylum seekers in South Africa does not get any easier," she says.