It's a long way from home, this crowded courtyard in Section B at Lindela repatriation camp outside Krugersdorp.

Sadly, home is precisely where this camp will lead for the many among the millions who come in search of asylum. Instead of crumbs from Africa's breadbasket, for many the last taste of this promised land will be a Lindela sandwich: "yellow spread" margarine on brown government bread.

In the bright spring sunshine on Wednesday in the courtyard, there is discomfort in the mounting anxiety of the men who come forward to tell their stories. They become excited, rowdy.

Give her space, shouts someone.

Evans Owusu, a 28-year-old Ghanaian man, a former teacher who has been in Lindela for four weeks, says: "I was hit by a security guard on Saturday. He called me 'an animal'."

The proceedings are watched over by Rich Nesengane, a home affairs immigration officer, and Thabo Mabetha, the manager of Bosasa - the contracting security firm also responsible for Lindela's accommodation and catering that has come under fire for its harsh treatment of detainees.

Now these officials nod, they say they are aware of the incident. The men here are friendly, they are bound by a brotherhood and a common goal to leave this place. But it's easy to see that their despair can be ignited.

A riot allegedly broke out in July among 58 Congolese nationals who were protesting against their protracted period of detention and who were allegedly attacked by Bosasa officers. Photographs of Lindela inmates bruised and beaten, last week leaked to The Star newspaper, bear testimony to this story.

Also last week, Jacob van Garderen, an advocate representing the Wits Law Clinic and Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), went to court on behalf of this group. He applied for the government to assist them with their asylum applications. LHR, which has been monitoring Lindela for the past three years, says that human rights violations there are common.

Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the home affairs minister, is aware of this, aware of the United Nations' highlighting of immigration and development.

In September last year, in the wake of an outcry over the high death rate at Lindela, she invited a UN working group on arbitrary detention to come to South Africa. The group reminded the government of its international obligations to make provision for valid contestation of their detention.

On Wednesday, under the protective and defensive watch of Nesengane and Mabetha, nothing untoward happens, but the flood of complaints is unstoppable. Many people have been detained, despite valid asylum claims and valid asylum-seeker permits.

Lefumbo Molokutwane, 36, a medical doctor from Zambia who runs a hair salon and a supermarket in Johannesburg, says in his experience, it is the police and not the immigration officials who are to blame for harsh treatment.

He says his visa was torn up by police although it was valid. He has been at Lindela for two weeks. Others claim they were head-butted by police, sprayed in the face with tear gas, beaten, assaulted and insulted.

"Is it right for an officer to tear up a person's visa?" asks Osinamatu Chukwu, who with fellow Nigerian Fred Osarkwe owns a tuck shop in Yeoville. Both said their visas were valid but were torn up by "an Indian" policeman who asked for R1 000.

"We said, 'we don't have the money to give you'. He said, 'What about the money from your tuck shop?' "

It is hardly news that many police officers don't comply with immigration regulations to assist suspected illegal immigrants to verify their identity or status. Home affairs immigration officials at Lindela seem unable to remedy such injustice.

Hunger strikes, which Mabetha insists are not sustained, are a protest against extended waiting periods. I am told that one such strike is currently being waged by most of the estimated 120 people present here from Lesotho, and by 15 Ethiopians.

Anteneh Neguisse Zeleke, an Ethiopian man, has been in Lindela for three months because he has lost his visa and has no copy.

A report released last month by Human Rights Watch, "Unprotected migrants; Zimbabweans in South Africa's Limpopo province" says the Immigration Act states that an illegal foreigner may not be held in detention for longer than 30 calendar days without the warrant of a court.

Only on "good and reasonable grounds" may such a detention be extended for a period not exceeding 90 days. Ninety days of brain-addling frustration do not relieve the memory of the journey, say those who have lived through it.

The quiet of Lindela's arrivals room weighs down on the newcomers. The smell of unwashed bodies rises in the atmosphere which is concentrated, loaded with fatigue, fear and apprehension.

Laughter breaks the tension. Three women from mainland China are unable to speak English or to communicate at all. Four Zimbabwean women say their papers are invalid. They say they are unafraid of Lindela, more afraid of home, where "life is finished".

Newcomers, already processed by a high-tech database at the adjoining home affairs office, are registered again by Bosasa authorities. Most have spent the previous night at a prison.

Somebody tells of a harrowing journey in a police van from Cape Town without food or pit stops. There are small suitcases and packets later to be stashed in the store room. Most have been allowed to bring only the clothes they were wearing.

This is an injustice, according to the Human Rights Watch report, although this refusal to allow detainees to gather their personal effects is not against the law. Detainees may make a call on arrival at the camp. Hygiene standards, always under scrutiny, appear to be high. A bi-monthly fumigation process puts a check on fears of fleas and vermin and today Section A is being pumped with poison.

Helen Assafemenkia, from Ethiopia, who has been at Lindela for a month, was arrested at the airport because her visa was invalid. She takes me on a quick, proud tour of the clean showers, toilets and dormitories in the women's section.

Despite concerns by Mapisa-Nqakula about the effects of the recent feminisation of immigration, the women I speak to say they have no experience of trafficking or even sexual harassment by men.

The kitchen gleams. Sample meals are frozen, in case of contamination. I see now why I was warned: "Don't go this side of food, madam." The trolleys of mealie pap, mince and a gelatinous potato and cabbage dish are not appetising. At the kitchen hatch hungry hands grab their plates with bread, fruit and a livid-looking orange 'juice'.

I have heard repeatedly that the food causes allergic reactions, rashes and gastric discomfort.

Doctor Mohammed Said Khota, still the sole doctor on duty, and on 24-hour standby, says he is saddened by the complaints that the medical facility at Lindela is inadequate.

"The sisters who work here are so good. People don't realise that we work in a clinic and not a hospital." He says his staff are able to contain the flus, sore throats and upper respiratory infections that dog the inmates. Pneumonia patients are referred to hospitals.

Yes, many die, he says. More than 100 people visit the clinic daily. The government's Khomanani Aids educational posters grace the women's two-bed section, but Khota says suspected Aids patients, who present with the obvious manifestations of thrush and lower chest infections, are recommended for deportation.

The same applies to the mentally infirm. A patient referred from Sterkfontein has just been sent away. Nonetheless, playing netball in the women's courtyard is Pailisa Rasile, 29, from the DRC, a resident who says she cannot remember when she arrived at Lindela. She is known among her fellow inmates to have long been deserted by reason.

For all its control rooms, its new systems, its commissions of inquiry, its check on corruption and abuse, Lindela fails in many ways to serve the people who are brought under its care.

Anne Wanjiru Mugo, 32, a Kenyan, came to Lindela two months ago, after two years in South Africa where she managed to get jobs in restaurants.

Her documentation was invalid.

"I came here to seek asylum, "she says. "They don't want to release me, they don't want to deport me, they don't want to give me asylum."

Van Garderen says that the Refugees Act states specifically that an asylum seeker who has entered the country illegally for purposes of asylum may not be penalised.

Lawyers for Human Rights' suggestion that the Immigration Act needs to become more rights-based and less control-based, would eventually change perceptions. Fears that immigrants flocking to the perceived Motherland will subsume the South African economy are not necessarily founded.

The Immigration Act focuses on highly qualified professionals and corporate workers, but Van Garderen points out that regional migration would be a stimulus to the economy. If undocumented people were legalised, he says, think of the money that could be saved.

Think too of the unfathomable cost of human anguish.