Notorious detention facility closes

By Zelda Venter Time of article published Nov 22, 2008

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Home Affairs this week decided to close the controversial detention facility for foreigners in Musina, which became notorious for the alleged abuse and maltreatment of foreign nationals.

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), in a statement, said it supported the call by the Director-General of the Department of Home Affairs for the closure of the detention facility, referred to as "SMG".

SMG has been used for over two years as a detention facility for migrants, mainly Zimbabwean nationals.

The facility is run by the South African Police Service with no safeguards to prevent unlawful detentions, the deportation of refugees or independent monitoring of the conditions of detention, Jacob van Garderen of LHR said.

According to LHR's representative in Musina, Sabelo Sibanda, these conditions are appalling.

"There are no toilet facilities made available to detainees and they have limited access to immigration or asylum services. This has resulted in unlawful deportations of potential refugees and asylum seekers, back to Zimbabwe.

"We have found large numbers of children, often unaccompanied, detained along with adults in contravention of both the Constitution and the Children's Act.

"Despite numerous requests, the Department of Social Development has refused to assist these children," Sibanda said.

South Africa has been cited for its ill-treatment of detainees in immigration detention by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. More recently, international human rights groups have condemned the treatment and conditions at the SMG facility.

A report recently published by the LHR, recorded substandard detention conditions and ill-treatment of detainees at the facility at the hands of police members stationed there. This has included abusive handcuffing, beatings with hosepipes and, in one incident, detainees were forced to roll in urine on the floor.

"Such treatment is not only a criminal offence, but a violation of South Africa's obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT). The government has signed the Optional Protocol to CAT which would see the establishment of an independent monitoring body for all places of detention, but this protocol has not yet been ratified.

"We call on government to take immediate steps to ratify this protocol," Sibanda said.

While they agree and support the Director-General's call for the closure of the facility, the LHR further called on the National Commissioner of Police to confirm that the facility will be closed.

"We are concerned about the plans to open a new facility to continue the same failed policy of detention and deportation. Zimbabwean nationals continue to come into South Africa out of fear of persecution or desperation due to food shortages and health crises," Van Garderen said.

He added that LHR had long called for a re-formulation of South Africa's immigration policy, especially with regard to Zimbabwean nationals who may not qualify under the strict definition of a "refugee" under the Refugees Act (Act no 130 of 1998), but are still in need of humanitarian protection.

"This will allow the limited resources within both SAPS and DHA to be redeployed to solving systemic problems in these departments rather than the fruitless and expensive policy of detention and deportation."

Van Garderen said recent months had seen an increased presence of the Department of Home Affairs in Musina to deal with the number of people crossing the border. This includes the opening of a refugee reception office in Musina, as well as more immigration officers at the SMG facility. "We support these moves and hope that the department continues to take the crisis in Zimbabwe seriously," he added.

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