South Africa: Held over in a hellhole

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For three young men fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Africa was supposed to be a haven.

Instead, it was a detention centre — a dirt-floored pen made of chain-link fencing and razor wire, with no roof, toilets or running water.

Manga Mmbyula, Kiza Djuma, and Shebani Celeste are asylum-seekers from southern Kivu in the DRC, a region of heavy fighting between the Congolese army and dissident soldiers.

Earlier this month they were among dozens of undocumented immigrants detained in the yard of the police station in Musina, near the Zimbabwe border. Here, South African authorities regularly hold scores of undocumented immigrants for days at a time before deporting them to their home countries.

But such miserable conditions for detained foreigners are widespread across South Africa’s police stations.

Station commissioner Superintendent Mainganye Godfrey Nephawe admitted “it’s not human” to detain the immigrants in the unsanitary, open-air facility. But with nowhere else to hold them, he said, his station has little choice.

“We don’t have shelter for them. What worries us is that 95% of them don’t have money or food, and a lot of them are women and children.”

Musina’s police station is at the heart of South Africa’s escalating attempts to deport undocumented foreigners. In a joint effort with the Department of Home Affairs and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), the station arrests and deports an average of 100 undocumented people a day, most of them to Zimbabwe. But though senior government officials know about the conditions here, the facility still has the characteristics of an animal pen.

On a Monday earlier this month, about 30 individuals at the facility sought shade as temperatures climbed to 35°C. To drink, they scooped water from a cooking pot set on a table in the sun. Detainees said they have access to an outdoor toilet during the day, but at night they must urinate and defecate on the ground inside the facility. And with no running water, they can’t wash themselves or their children.

“It’s a completely inhumane system of detention,” said Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, director of the Refugee Rights Project at Lawyers for Human Rights.

She said the facility does not conform to the minimum standards for detention outlined in the Correctional Services Act, particularly as temperatures sometimes reach 40°C. “In this heat, it’s unbearable.”

Mduduzi Nkomo (20), from Gwanda, Zimbabwe, said he’d been fed only two meals since arriving the day before — each time it was one slice of bread and a cup of tea.

“We’re fed, but it’s insufficient,” said another detainee, who didn’t give his name.

Nephawe said the station doesn’t have the money to adequately feed the immigrants held at the station.

“If it is time for lunch, we share the little food we have with them, because we must give them food,” he said, adding that even immigrants who have been released sometimes remain there to receive food. “They stay on the police station premises, but we don’t detain them.”

Most of the roughly 100 undocumented individuals arrested every day are from Zimbabwe and are deported the same day as their arrest. Still, many remain in the facility for days because the station doesn’t have enough officers and trucks to deport them all. “They stay overnight when we are tired of deporting them,” Nephawe said. “You cannot work 24 hours a day.”

For some, the stay is longer. Nephawe said immigrants seeking refugee status sometimes stay for days at a time, waiting to be interviewed by personnel from the home affairs department, which is responsible for determining migrants’ immigration status and assigning identity documents in South Africa.

Paseka Letsatsi, spokesperson for Minister for Home Affairs Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, said undocumented immigrants at the police station “are there for departure within 24 hours”, except on weekends.

“They will sleep there on Saturdays and Sundays,” Letsatsi said. “But if they’re arrested during the week … they definitely are deported within 24 hours back to their home country.”

But police officials said immigrants from distant nations are sometimes held for days until transport can be arranged for them.

“There is not a plane to Nigeria every day,” Nephawe said.

“Sometimes they stay two, three, four or five days,” said Eric T Ndou of the Musina Community Police Force, which partners with the station to resolve community issues in the area.

Ndou said undocumented immigrants are sometimes released after bribing officers. “If they don’t have money, then they suffer.”

Senior South African authorities are aware of conditions for undocumented immigrants at the Musina police station and officials talk of plans to build a larger, R50-million facility here. But such construction could take years and little is being done in the interim.

Despite the home affairs department’s collaboration with the police and the SANDF in dealing with undocumented foreign nationals at Musina, the home affairs minister denies responsibility for conditions at the police station.

“The detention centre doesn’t belong to the Department of Home Affairs, it belongs to the South African Police Service,” said Letsatsi.

The national police is, however, deeply concerned. National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi visited the Musina police station earlier this year, according to his spokesperson, Director Sally de Beer. “He was concerned about the condition of the police station and he has issued instructions that the matter must be attended to,” she said, adding that such instructions were issued “immediately after the visit” to Deputy National Police Commissioner Hamilton Hlela, who is in charge of logistics in the nation’s police system.

Hlela said the budget and responsibility for maintenance and renovations of individual police stations lie with the Department of Public Works and that he had brought this particular facility to the attention of the department “on a number of occasions”.

But Lucky Mochalibane, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, said efforts are currently under way “to attend to only the critical areas such as electricity and roof leaks, which are in need of repairs”.

“The department is of the view that it would be uneconomical to spend a huge amount of very limited financial resources on repairs and maintenance when the [national police] has already prioritised the construction of a new police station in the area,” he said.

Mochalibane said the department had begun site clearance for the new facility and that “construction is expected to start within the next financial year”.

But Ramjathan-Keogh said rumours about improving vacant army barracks nearby to house the refugees had been circulating for years — to no avail.

After the three detainees from the DRC were stopped by SANDF soldiers in Musina late last month, they were arrested as illegal immigrants and then interviewed by home affairs, police said. They were given a 14-day permit to apply for asylum at one of the country’s five Refugee Reception offices. The closest one is in Pretoria — nearly 500km south.

“I need to go to Pretoria, but I need transport,” Celeste said from behind the facility’s fence on November 2. “I am from Congo. How could I have any money?”

Presumably they found a way, because the three Congolese men left the facility days later. There were hundreds more to take their place. At midday on Wednesday this week, the number of men, women and children inside the pen stood at 87 — and the temperature was 38°C, and rising.

Police stations ‘ill-equipped’

Poor conditions for detained foreign nationals are not confined to Musina police station.

Rudolph Jansen, director of Lawyers for Human Rights, said it is “very common” for undocumented immigrants to be detained in police stations throughout South Africa.

However, “most of our police stations are ill-equipped to detain people for extended periods of time”, he said, noting that many police stations do not have adequate staff, physical facilities or access to medical services for those detained.

Jansen said authorities are also “not very consistent” in the way they detain undocumented immigrants.

“There is a whole range in the standard and in the administration of detaining foreign nationals,” he said, adding that standards are often poorest in high-volume facilities, such as the police station in Musina.

The South African Human Rights Commission, which recently hosted public hearings on xenophobia, has investigated conditions for detained undocumented immigrants. Chairperson Jody Kollapen said police stations that detain undocumented immigrants are responsible for providing basic services.

“The minimum standards of detention, as set out in our Constitution, that is detention consistent with human dignity, should apply to all people, whether citizens or non-citizens,” said Kollapen.

“That standard is a non- negotiable standard,” he said.

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2004

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