07 June 2012

Three reports about inhumane conditions at the infamous Lindela Repatriation Centre have fallen on deaf ears - in spite of the situation being raised with President Jacob Zuma.

A fourth investigation - prompted by a report in The Times on Tuesday about riots at the centre - is being completed and will be submitted to the Department of Home Affairs.

Refugees at Lindela ran amok on Monday, protesting mainly against a Home Affairs practice of holding them at the centre for longer than the 120 days stipulated in the Immigration Act.

The conditions under which refugees at the centre on Gauteng's West Rand are held have been a cause of concern for NGOs and refugee organisations for several years.

The SA Human Rights Commission said yesterday the suffering of those at Lindela should not be allowed any longer and called on Home Affairs to come up with "urgent and meaningful measures to put an end to the ill-treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers".

The commission said "vulnerable" refugees had rights, including that they be protected.

Commission spokesman Vincent Moaga said the violations at Lindela were of grave concern as they appeared to be becoming endemic and systemic.

Yesterday's call for a solution to refugees' problems is not the first. In a 2009 report, the commission raised concerns about assaults on migrants at centres such as Lindela and made recommendations to Home Affairs about the rights of non-South Africans.

The commission again reported incidents of abuse of refugees and attacks on migrants and asylum-seekers at the Home Affairs offices in Marabastad, Pretoria, in April.

"It is extremely disconcerting that the department has not yet responded to the recommendations of the commission contained in the 2009 report," Moaga said.

"The situation is exacerbated by the repeated occurrences of similar violations. There appear to be no adequate and tangible corrective measures being taken by the department to ameliorate the plight of migrants and asylum seekers."

Just last month, a consortium of NGOs, including Lawyers for Human Rights, Section 27, Passop and MSF, lodged a complaint with the commission about the treatment of refugees at Lindela, specifically the lack of healthcare - a copy of which has also been submitted to Home Affairs.

A meeting between the commission and the NGOs was held just days before Zuma's budget debate speech in parliament on May 30.

Zuma had received complaints from heads of Chapter 9 institutions ( the commission is one) about a lack of cooperation from some departments.

"Some heads of Chapter 9 institutions have complained to me about the lax attitude towards them by some departmental officials when they ask for reports. This must change," he said.

Zuma did not name the departments concerned, but Moaga yesterday confirmed the commission had earlier this year complained about Home Affairs.

The Times suffered the same fate as the commission after Home Affairs failed to respond to questions about conditions at Lindela that were sent two days ago.

Both Ronnie Mamoepa and Manusha Pillai from the department said they were too busy to attend to the query because they were writing a speech for the minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

After the violent protest at Lindela on Monday, Moaga said: "The rights of non-nationals are specifically protected in national law and in international human rights agreements.

"This group is particularly vulnerable and the state is obliged to take appropriate steps to ensure . this group is adequately protected.

"The history of reported abuses and continuing complaints demands that the commission take the necessary steps to ensure that the rights of this group are not violated with impunity."

And while the government failed to address the problem, Lindela inmates this week continued to tell of their life in "hell".

Frustrated Somalis, Congolese and Ethiopians on Thursday accused Home Affairs of failing them.

"Guards treat us like animals and assault us as they wish and they [Home Affairs officials] do not care what happens to us. They do not even want to listen to our complaints. If they cared, we would not have rioted on Monday," said one refugee.

"For the past two to three weeks, most of us who had spent more than the maximum 120 days in this place were given release letters. We were told that we were free to go. Instead of the promised freedom, we found immigration officers waiting for us outside, saying they were taking us to Home Affairs in Pretoria to have our documents fixed.

"Instead, they took us to different police stations, including Mamelodi East and Atteridgeville, where we spent two weeks while others spent a week.

"From the police stations we were driven back to Lindela, where we have started afresh. We have been provided with new cards with new dates of arrest because we refused to be repatriated to our countries for fear of being killed or incarcerated," he said.

Others said they were forced to embark on a strike and refused to eat after the chief immigration officer refused to address them or to invite the United Nation Human Rights Commissioner for Refugees to address them.

Passop director Braam Hanekom said the protest and the treatment of those at Lindela was a "shame" and likened it to apartheid tactics. - Additional reporting by McKeed Kotlolo