Tue Oct 25 06:59:36 SAST 2016

Riot puts spotlight on 'violation' of refugees

Illegal immigrants play a game known as 'morabaraba' at Lindela repatriation centre in this 2007 photograph. The centre is embroiled in a new controversy Picture: Antony Kaminju / Sunday Times.

A RIOT at the notorious Lindela Repatriation Centre yesterday has brought into sharp focus the treatment of refugees by the Department of Home Affairs.

The Legal Resource Centre, which has litigated successfully against Home Affairs in the past on behalf of refugees, said that every day at least 15 urgent applications were brought before the Johannesburg High Court alone - at huge cost to the government - by detainess who had not been released from Lindela within the 120 days stipulated by the Immigration Act

It accused the department of "xenophobic tendencies".

At Lindela, on the West Rand, yesterday, a protest became violent when guards with batons charged at protesters and fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd.

The initial protests at the weekend were led by about 20 refugees who were to have been released from Lindela a week ago. They were instead taken in Home Affairs cars to police stations.

An inmate at Lindela who did not want to be named said: "I have been locked up here for more than three months and on Thursday I signed a document that set me free.

"Instead of being released together with other inmates, we were taken to different police stations where we spent the night.

"The following day the station commander contacted Home Affairs before we were driven back to Lindela."

The inmate said the detainees had staged peaceful protests on Saturday and Sunday and had told the guards that they did not want trouble but did want to be released.

Another inmate said he had been told on Wednesday that he and others had been held at Lindela for longer than the stipulated four months and were going to be released.

"When we left the building, Home Affairs officials put us into a van, saying they were taking us to Home Affairs offices in Pretoria to have our documents fixed.

"To our surprise, they took some to Atteridgeville police station and some to Mamelodi East police because it was late and the [Home Affairs] offices were closed. They said we would spend the night at the police stations and in the morning they would take us to Home Affairs for our refugee documentation."

The inmate said he spent five days at Mamelodi police station.

"Yesterday morning, we were again taken into vans after the officials said we were being taken back to Lindela for a fresh start."

Yesterday the inmates asked representatives of the UN High Commission for Refugees, and Home Affairs, to speak to them.

But at 8am the guards decided to disperse the inmates.

"Several inmates were injured, some were overcome by teargas," the refugee said.

About 100 inmates - most of them Congolese, Ethiopians or Somalis - who opposed repatriation to their home countries took part in the protests.

Home Affairs spokesman Manusha Pillai denied that there had been a riot.

"According to reports from the head of the Lindela Repatriation Centre there were no riots today [Monday].

"Some of the deportees, however, allegedly attempted to incite others to riot against the department's mandate to deport foreign nationals in breach of South Africa's immigration law," Pillai said.

But the Legal Resource Centre slammed the running of Lindela and said an urgent inquiry was needed into the centre, which is run on behalf of the government by a private company, Bosasa.

"The centre holds 4000 people, with 2600 on average being held there on any given day," said Naseema Fakir, of the Legal Resource Centre. "Most of them are held in contravention of the Immigration Act. The breach of the act is that most are held longer than the prescribed three months. The excuse for holding people beyond the prescribed [period] is inadequate."

Fakir said that though Home Affairs claimed it was waiting for confirmation of refugees' identity from their embassies so that it could be sure that they were to be deported to the correct country the deportations were not made.

More concerning, however, was that the department's actions had left it open to a growing number of court cases.

Fakir said the urgent applications to the Johannesburg High Court cost the government at least R150-million a year.

"Since February, we have secured the release of 26 refugees. The costs are immense, with each application costing R40000 from start to finish."

Fakir questioned the outsourcing of the management of Lindela.

"There is only one doctor at the centre, with access to proper nutrition, legal representatives and translators being other issues.

"We need to know why state functions are outsourced to private companies when the government has a duty to protect the rights of immigrants."

In Cape Town yesterday, refugees and asylum seekers protested outside the Maitland Refugee Centre against its imminent closure.

Rights group Passop said Home Affairs had not consulted civil society on its decision to shut the centre and that about 40000 people would be deprived of services they desperately needed - and were entitled to.

Manusha Pillai, Home Affairs spokesman, said the decision had been taken in consultation with the parliamentary oversight committee and others.


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