(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Rough road home for illegal immigrants

[South Africa] Mduduzi Nkomo, 20, from Gwanda, Zimbabwe.

In the South African border town of Musina, authorities regularly detain dozens of undocumented immigrants, sometimes for days on end, in an outdoor facility without toilets or running water.

Men, women and children, including those seeking refugee status in South Africa, are held behind a chain-link fence and razor wire in the yard of the Musina police station.

"We arrest someone, put them in a [holding enclosure], with no roof, no water, no toilets," said the police station's commissioner, Superintendent Mainganye Godfrey Nephawe. "It's not human, and we're worried about most of them."

Located just 12 km south of the Zimbabwe border, Musina is on the front line of South Africa's efforts to curb illegal immigration - an increasingly controversial issue in this nation of an estimated 46 million people. Yet, while individual officials express concern about conditions in the detention facility in Musina, the South African authorities have been accused of not moving quickly enough to rectify the situation.


In a joint effort with South Africa's Department of Home Affairs and the South African National Defence Force, the Musina police conduct daily patrols in the town and on the surrounding farms, arresting dozens of individuals who cannot present proper identity papers.

Station spokesperson Captain Mashudu Malelo said the authorities determined which undocumented individuals were immigrants by interrogating them in local dialects and asking questions about city landmarks - at least three-quarters of those arrested were from Zimbabwe.

He said the station deported an average of 100 undocumented immigrants every day, ferrying them in a steady stream of armoured trucks to the police station in Beitbridge on the Zimbabwe side of the border.

But after dark, or when the station does not have enough trucks to transport detainees, undocumented immigrants have to spend the night in the detention facility.

"Sometimes they stay for two, three, four, or five days," said Eric T. Ndou of the Musina Community Police Forum, which partners with the Musina police station in addressing community issues.


At midday last Tuesday, three dozen individuals sat on the dirt floor of the holding facility, where more chain-link fencing and razor wire separate the men from the women and children. As temperatures reached 35ºC (95ºF), most sought refuge under the shade cast by the concrete wall and the yard's only tree.

There is no toilet inside the facility. During daylight hours, detainees say, authorities will escort them to an outdoor toilet, but at night they must urinate and defecate inside the enclosure.

The facility has no running water, so detainees cannot wash.

For drinking water, individuals scoop water from a single cooking pot set up on a table in the sun.

Police spokesperson Malelo admitted that the station "does not have [suitable] cells to detain them". They had requested the department of home affairs and defence force to stop bringing undocumented foreign nationals at night, as this would allow the police to deport the immigrants on a daily basis rather than having them spend time exposed to the elements.

"Immediately, when we've got a full load of the people as well as their goods, the truck leaves," he said.

But the station commissioner told IRIN that detainees slept overnight in the pen.

"They stay overnight when we are tired of deporting them," said Superintendent Nephawe. "You cannot work 24 hours a day."

Mduduzi Nkomo, 20, a detainee from Gwanda in Zimbabwe, said he had been fed twice since arriving the day before, and each meal had consisted of one slice of bread and a cup of tea.

Nephawe said the station shared what little it had with detainees, "because we must give them food". Although he believed the meals were insufficient, he said the station was doing its best to cope with the constant influx of immigrants.

"You understand, small kids are sleeping out in the open, at night, on the ground, because if they come in at midnight or one [o'clock in the morning], we must keep them [overnight]," he explained. "But if it is raining, it rains on them."


At least three young men detained in the facility last Tuesday were attempting to attain refugee status in South Africa.

Shebani Celeste, Manga Mmbyula, and Kiza Djuma said they were from Southern Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where dissident soldiers are currently battling the Force Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC). Speaking in French, they said they came to South Africa by train and had been held in the facility since Saturday. They didn't know whether they would be deported or not.

Mmbyula and Djuma showed IRIN documents from the South African Department of Home Affairs, requesting that they report to one of the country's five Refugee Reception offices. There is no Refugee Reception office in Musina - the nearest one is in Pretoria, nearly 500 kilometers away.

Rudolph Jansen, a director of Lawyers for Human Rights, a South African legal-advocacy organisation, said the authorities needed to be more sensitive to the needs of those claiming to be refugees.

"Police stations are ill-equipped to detain foreign nationals," he said. "For those who are fleeing persecution, it's absolutely crucial that they are given access to services; that their status is determined; and that they're given documentation to prove that status as soon as possible."


In recent years, Zimbabwe has been crippled by massive food shortages, a disintegrating economy and political instability. Millions of Zimbabweans have crossed the porous, 225 km border into South Africa, either by cutting through fences or crossing the crocodile-infested Limpopo River. They reside in South Africa as exiles, constantly at risk of being caught and deported.

Standing behind the chain-link fence at Musina police station, Raymond Moyo, 32, from Plumtree, Zimbabwe, said he had been detained for two days. "We come to South Africa because we are suffering, [and are looking] for a job," and added that he had been deported once before, but had returned to Musina to work in a hotel.

As a Zimbabwean without proper documentation, Moyo is a primary target in an escalating deportation effort in Limpopo Province, where Musina is located.

Des Venter, head of immigration in the Department of Home Affairs in the provincial capital, Polokwane, said South Africa was deporting growing numbers of Zimbabweans from Limpopo.

In the first 10 months of this year, he noted, the South African government had deported 41,069 Zimbabwean citizens from the province, a nine percent increase from the total of 37,796 deportations in 2003.

Because there is no internationally recognised conflict in Zimbabwe, the South African government maintains that undocumented immigrants from Zimbabwe are "economic migrants", rather than refugees. But Refugees International, a Washington DC-based humanitarian organisation, has reported that 5,000 Zimbabweans are currently seeking political asylum in the country.

Police spokesperson Malelo said he didn't have "any idea" whether anyone deported to Zimbabwe had sought refugee status, but those who had been deported "have not been afraid to be taken back to Zimbabwe".

Zimbabweans who crossed the border looking for food and work also deserved adequate treatment while detained, said Tara Pozel, director of the Rural Research Project of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwaterstrand.

"South Africa is legally able to deport them as immigrants, but the question is, basically, whether basic human rights are being respected in that process," she said.


Nephawe said National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi had visited the facility on 27 January and was "very much concerned" about the existing conditions. "The minute he saw this place he sat right here and called his office, and instructed his representatives to fly to Musina the following day."

Nephawe said plans to create a new, R50-million (about US $8.1-million) facility for detained foreign nationals in Musina were contingent on acquiring additional land, which required the cooperation of the Musina Local Municipality. He had contacted the council about the matter as recently as 27 October, but had been told that an investigation of the request was still pending.

In the interim, Nephawe said, he hoped to receive about R1 million (about US $163,000) to renovate a nearby vacant military barracks to house the undocumented immigrants.

"If we can get money ... we can fix it," he said. "We must not leave people suffering."

But Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, director of the Refugee Rights Project at Lawyers for Human Rights South Africa, said there had been talk about using the army barracks for years.

"There were rumours going around about creating a facility at the army barracks, but that never happened," she said.

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