Tourists tell of 'detention nightmare' at OR Tambo airport

By Lyse Comins Time of article published Mar 25, 2020

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Durban - Tourists who were allegedly held at a “detention facility” at OR Tambo International Airport at the weekend claim they were kept in “seedy conditions”, treated like criminals and suffered human rights abuses at the hands of private security officers.

After a two-week holiday in South Africa, Elena Fernandez Rico and her boyfriend Chris Naude were on their way back to Vietnam, where she works, when their ordeal began.

Vietnam closed its borders while their plane was en route so they flew back to Dubai and were then rerouted back to OR Tambo.

She claimed when she arrived in South Africa on Saturday, she was made to sign documents stating that she had no authorisation to be in the country before being taken to the detention facility at the airport.

Naude was not allowed to stay with her, she alleged. She further said she endured a nightmare stay at the facility where she was forced to sleep on the floor and drink tap water out of the same glass with at least five other travellers.

US citizen Jerril Adams said he was shocked at the violation of his human rights allegedly by the security officers. Both had no change of clothes with them and Fernandez Rico said security officers had refused to provide her with sanitary towels.

Both travellers eventually managed to secure their release from the facility but only after a lawyer and the Spanish embassy assisted Fernandez Rico. Adams managed to speak to the US embassy and a friend with government connections.

Other foreign nationals from Japan, the US, the UK and Portugal were also being held. Fernandez Rico said a group of Pakistani travellers were held in a separate room and the security officers had seized the phones of most of the travellers. However, she had refused to hand over her cellphone.

“They didn’t give me any food or soap and there were no masks,” she alleged. Fernandez Rico said she had no bed and was forced to lie on the floor.

“This is surreal and it happened on Human Rights Day in South Africa,” she said. Eventually, she said, the officers provided unappetising fried chips and noodles on Sunday.

By that time, the Spanish embassy and her attorney had managed to secure her release for a fee of R2300 which she paid to the security firm.

Because they travelled, Fernandez Rico and her boyfriend are now in self-quarantine in Durban.

Speaking from Dubai where he was waiting for a connecting flight, Adams said checked with an SAA office in Brazil on Thursday whether he would still be able to travel to Joburg en route home to Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo where he works as an educator after he had heard about a “change of rules”.

He said staff assured him he was able to travel but when he landed he was told to sign a form stating he had arrived without a visa.

“It was the most humiliating experience for me as a professional international educator and a person who has loved studying and travelling in South Africa,” he said.

“They intimidated us, they screamed at us when we tried to talk. They used their physical size to try to intimidate us. They told us to shut up, took our phones away and patted us down like criminals.”

He said the officers accused him of being “non-compliant” and threatened to call the police when he asked for soap and water. He alleged that the travellers were being held in close quarters in violation of World Health Organisation recommendations for managing Covid-19.

Home Affairs spokesperson David Hlabane referred questions regarding the allegations to the Airports Company of SA. Airports Company of SA spokesperson Betty Maloka said the company was “aware of claims circulating on social media platforms showing foreign travellers at OR Tambo International Airport detained in an inadmissible (Inad) facility at the airport”.

“The Inad facility is used as a temporary holding area for travellers who have been denied access to the country for immigration reasons. The passenger should be kept in the facility for no more than 24 hours until taken back to their country by the respective airline,” Maloka said.

“This particular Inad facility applies to a different law where the traveller has already disembarked an aircraft and attempted to enter the country through Department of Home Affairs-Immigration Services-controlled points,” Maloka said.

She said the airport ensured that the facility was well maintained and travellers’ security, health and safety were not compromised. She said the facility included showers, beds, eating facilities and was “well stocked” with toiletries including sanitary towels, toilet paper, soap, fumigation sprays, baby food, charging points and nappies. Maloka said the facility had complied with social distance protocols and hygiene in light of the Covid-19 national state of disaster.

SAA spokeserson Tlali Tlali said the airline regretted Adams’s experience.

“While some forms of treatment towards passenger Adams were outside the airline’s control, we are extremely disappointed that he was not provided with reliable information before travelling to South Africa. This is a matter we will investigate," he said. 

The Mercury

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