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Lawyers fight to improve refugee facility

Resource type: News

Pretoria News |

by Zelda Venter

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) are to approach the Pretoria High Court in a bid to force the government to improve conditions at a holding facility for refugees in Musina, or have it closed down.

This follows the outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe, which has since spread to Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng.

It is claimed conditions at the holding facility, located on the Soutpansberg Military Grounds just outside Musina, make the spread of cholera among detainees at the facility inevitable.

Zimbabwean lawyer Sabelo Sibanda said in papers filed at court that conditions at the facility were appalling.

Children as young as 12 were held there without their parents or guardians and were mostly unaccompanied when deported.

Young boys were said to be not kept separate from male adults.

It is further claimed that the detainees do not receive sufficient food and that due to a lack of sanitary facilities, they often had to relieve themselves on the floors.

Other claims involve alleged police brutality at the facility.

Sibanda said in terms of the Immigration Act, illegal immigrants may only be detained by immigration officers at places determined by the Department of Home Affairs. He said the facility had not been designated as such, nor were immigration officers responsible for running it.

“Instead police officers are dealing with detention and deportation at the facility. Accordingly, the facility and the activities which take place there are currently unlawful,” Sibanda said.

He further stated that the conditions at the centre did not meet the standard of detention as set out in the Immigration Act and the fact that unaccompanied children were held there, made the facility unlawful.

Sibanda said LHR had since November 2006 engaged government over the human right abuses at the centre and had monitored it since July last year.

“The conditions which I have observed there are deplorable and they violate the rights of all refugees and asylum seekers entrenched in the Bill of Rights.”

Sibanda said since November last year Home Affairs had withdrawn from the facility as they could not continue to expose their officials to unhygienic conditions there, nor could they condone keeping people in such squalor.

This, he said, resulted in the police, without having the legal status to do so, deporting detainees without investigation or verification of their status.

“The sudden influx on January 3 and 4 this year of a large number of detainees caused by a police operation around Musina and the border, only exacerbated the serious dangers to health, safety and child welfare at the centre,” Sibanda said.

He said a lack of proper toilets forced the detainees to urinate and defecate on the floors. The detainees were subsequently chosen at random and forced to clean the floors without protective clothing.

“These sanitary conditions were particularly dangerous in light of the recent cholera outbreak in the area.”

Other complaints include filthy blankets dished out to the detainees and the fact that only barbed wire separated men from women.

Infants were also kept with their mothers, he said, without provision of proper nutrition and health facilities.

LHR will on March 10 ask the court to order Home Affairs to decide whether this facility was designated as a detention facility under the Immigration Act.

If so, they will then ask that conditions be improved. If not, LHR will request that the facility be closed within a month of the order being given.