Four months ago, Clemence Uzizo, 21, a welder living in Soweto, Johannesburg's most populous suburb, made the mistake of venturing out to a local shop without his asylum-seeker permit. Neither the police who arrested him, nor the immigration officials who detained him, verified Uzizo's legal status before deporting him to Zimbabwe, the country of his birth.
"My permit was at home but I didn't have a cell phone to call to ask someone to bring it," he told IRIN not long after making a risky and expensive return to South Africa via the Limpopo River. "Since my father brought me [to South Africa] in 1992 I've lived here, so I don't know anyone in Zimbabwe."
Uzizo's story is not unusual. In October 2011 South Africa lifted a moratorium that had protected undocumented Zimbabweans from arrest and deportation for more than two years. Since then nearly 10,000 have been forcibly returned, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which runs a reception and support centre for returnees at the Beitbridge border between the two countries.
An internal directive issued by the Director-General of South Africa's Department of Home Affairs said deportation should only be carried out after verifying that a suspect had not applied for asylum or any other permits. However, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, who heads the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), said officials at Lindela Repatriation Centre outside Johannesburg, where the vast majority of migrants are held before being deported, often fail to screen new arrivals to establish that they really are undocumented.
"We find people with documents who shouldn't have been admitted [to Lindela]," she told IRIN. "It is a huge struggle to have [them] released; we usually have to resort to high court litigation which is time consuming and we can only assist a few people."
In a recent submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, LHR noted that "Despite the legal protections afforded to asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants in South Africa, the detention and deportation of foreign nationals is often carried out in an unlawful manner."
Arrest first, ask questions later
In the busy border town of Musina, about 10km south of Beitbridge, newly arrived migrants, many of them border jumpers like Uzizo, sleep rough in the vicinity of the Refugee Reception Office where they start queuing in the early hours of the morning in the hope of securing asylum-seeker permits. Despite waiting all day, not all of them reach the front of the queue and those who leave without documents risk arrest by police waiting outside, according to Jacob Matakanye, director of the Musina Legal Advice Office (MLAO).
On a recent Friday, three cells at Musina Police Station contained 106 migrants, of which 102 were men held in just two cells. Among them were Zimbabweans, Ethiopians, Somalis, Bangladeshis, Congolese and one Tanzanian, Cassim Mustapha, who had attempted to enter the country via the Beitbridge border post. "I'm claiming asylum because of my sexuality," he told IRIN. "I had a paper from the UN but they just said, 'Where is your passport?' and when I didn't have it, they arrested me."
Arresting someone who is claiming asylum because they cannot produce a passport is "completely unlawful", said Ramjathan-Keogh of LHR, but "quite common" at Beitbridge.
While the practice of arresting undocumented migrants first and asking questions later appears common in Musina, several organizations, including LHR, IOM and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have regular access to detainees at the police station and often help secure the release of those with pending asylum applications or lost permits.
Access to detainees at Lindela is much more limited. The South African Human Rights Commission is the only organization with an official mandate to monitor immigration detention facilities, but according to LHR, such monitoring has been "haphazard and infrequent".
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"We rely on clients to tell us who is there and what is going on. It's extremely laborious and frustrating," said Ramjathan-Keogh, adding that the organization was being forced to scale back its assistance to detainees at Lindela due to resource constraints.
LHR's submission to the Special Rapporteur notes that detainees at Lindela regularly complain about conditions at the facility, in particular the lack of medical care, but also dirty bedding, inadequate meals, and beatings by security guards and immigration officials.
South Africa's immigration law stipulates that detention for the purpose of deportation should not exceed 120 days, but a number of detainees told LHR that they had been at Lindela much longer.
The cells at the Musina Police Station are often overcrowded, so deportations to Zimbabwe occur almost every day and detainees from further afield usually spend no more than two weeks there, according to Matakanye of MLAO. The downside of migrants being detained so briefly is that some are deported before agencies like LHR can determine the lawfulness of their case, said Ramjathan-Keogh, noting that there had been several instances of unaccompanied minors being deported from Musina.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has expressed concern about conditions in the police cells, in particular the lack of access to health care and the absence of screening to determine which detainees are on medication for infectious diseases like tuberculosis (TB) or HIV. "There's still no screening happening," said Christine Mwongera, MSF's project coordinator in Musina, "so there are TB patients being kept in cells with others."
Migrants with TB whose treatment is interrupted can develop multidrug-resistant (MDR) strains of the disease. Mwongera noted that "At some point, these people who are being deported might return and they will bring MDR-TB back to South Africa, so it really needs to be deal with."