By Corey R Johnson
The Lindela Repatriation Centre, South Africa’s main detention facility for persons deemed to be illegal and slated for deportation, has a long and notorious reputation for repeated rights abuses of detainees. In 2000 the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) released a report, which detailed the human-rights violations and listed a number of recommendations.
A dozen years later similar allegations continue to surface with reports of incidents of legitimate asylum seekers and refugees being deported and put at risk of torture and possible death, the continued deportation of persons whose release had already been ordered by the court, riots caused by poor conditions and deaths in the facility.
Considering these latest events it is not surprising to learn that the department of home affairs did not respond to the SAHRC’s recommendations in 2000. It should be clear by now that the department and Bosasa, the private company contracted to operate Lindela, are not fulfilling their legal responsibilities in relation to the detention and deportation of foreigners through Lindela and that new policies are needed.
The current detention and deportation system is not working and the unlawful deprivation of liberty and inhumane treatment of any person should alarm us. The recommendations below would go a long way to ensure that basic rights are protected as required by law and would benefit all people in SA, regardless of their origin.
Prohibit the deportation of asylum seekers and refugees
South Africa is legally required to abstain from deporting legitimate asylum seekers and refugees to countries where there is a reasonable possibility they may face torture or death. This obligation, known as the principle of non-refoulement, is enshrined in both domestic and international law. It’s recognised as having acquired the status of jus cogens, meaning that it cannot be disregarded or violated under any circumstances.
Unfortunately many legal asylum seekers and refugees are being arrested and detained in Lindela. The well-documented inefficiencies of the department of home affair’s refugee reception offices, such as the implementation of unlawful measures that restrict access to offices, endless queues, abysmal refugee status determination methods and epic backlogs in the refugee status determination appeal and review system, all increase the likelihood that this vulnerable population will be put in an even more precarious position due to the department’s own inability to effectively manage its system.
If home affairs insists on using deportation as its primary tool of immigration enforcement it must consider how its own shortcomings in providing documentation and access to services will affect the efficiency and legality of this policy. It must also take seriously its non-refoulement obligation and increase the opportunities for asylum seekers and refugees to have their status verified if they arrive in Lindela.
Increased access and monitoring of Lindela
Oversight powers of Lindela are delegated to the SAHRC and Parliament, yet there has not been a public report issued on the operation of the facility since 2000. Access for non-governmental organisations is extremely limited and this lack of transparency allows rights abuses to occur with minimal oversight. It is telling that the Bosasa website does not mention any international human-rights treaties but proudly proclaims that its operations are “completely compliant with the Alien Controls Act No 96 of 1991″, an apartheid-era piece of legislation that was repealed 10 years ago.
Many of the aforementioned abuses could be alleviated through increased access to organisations with expertise in assisting migrants. Currently Lawyers for Human Rights, an independent human-rights organisation that has been involved in monitoring Lindela since 2000, is the only organisation granted regular access to provide pro bono legal assistance to detainees and it cannot be expected to adequately assist the high numbers being unlawfully detained at the facility at any given time. Interviews with recently released detainees have revealed that the legal requirements for detention and deportation are often not followed and increased access would provide more detainees with information about their basic legal rights.
This limited access also applies to humanitarian organisations. On November 30 2011 the well-respected organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) requested access in order to conduct an assessment on the provision of healthcare in Lindela. The request was denied by home affairs which stated that “permission cannot be granted as the department is satisfied with the arrangements it has in place in this regard”.
This refusal was issued despite a report detailing that 90% of detainees did not have access to proper medical treatment, including ARVs, which has serious public-health consequences. Detainees who are on HIV-ARV treatments or tuberculosis regimens must be allowed to continue these medicines as premature termination or prolonged absences in treatment can allow these diseases to develop immunities to current treatment methods.
This not only negatively affects the detainees’ right to health but also has serious health implications for the general public as the development of drug-resistant strains of these diseases will not only have regional but global repercussions. The department of health has noted this by providing medical care to at-risk migrants as a top priority in its 2012National Strategic Plan for HIV, STIs, and TB, yet it seems home affairs does not place similar importance on the issue of public health.
If home affairs is serious about health issues, it should consider allowing independent organisations into Lindela and potentially establish onsite medical clinics and increased health screenings for detainees, both solutionsalready suggested by the University of the Witwatersrand.
Allowing outside access to detention facilities is not unknown. In France organisations such as La Cimade have permanent desks within migrant detention facilities to provide on-site legal assistance. Similarly, Malta allowed MSF to provide healthcare to migrants in detention centres. This laid the foundation for long-term healthcare provision in detention centres.
Corey R Johnson holds a Bachelor of Science in political science from the University of Wyoming, a Master of Arts in international policy from La Trobe University and a Master of Human-Rights Law from Monash University. He has worked with migrants at the Humanitarian Crisis Hub in Melbourne, Australia and currently assists migrants with the advocacy programme at the Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town.