The three meter-high security fence around the sprawling complex is almost as intimidating to new arrivals as the dogs and the armed security guards, who yell orders to form a proper queue at the admissions table.
This is Lindela, South Africa's deportation centre for illegal immigrants. Located in Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg, Lindela houses both males and females arrested in regular sweeps by the South African Police Services (SAPS).
The bulk of the detainees are Zimbabweans and Mozambicans, but there are also citizens of Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia and Zambia. Lindela is, in theory, their last address before being deported from South Africa.
Last week an IRIN journalist, wrongly arrested by the police in Johannesburg, was a temporary inmate of the notorious facility.
Despite its modern design, space is at a premium in Lindela, particularly in the male wing. A room no larger than a standard bedroom is meant to hold 18 men, but immigrants detained during heavy crackdowns remember occasions when there were up to 54 people per room, two to three people shared the same bed, and just one toilet.
"Most of these toilets do not have functioning flushing systems, a situation which dictates that we use them sparingly. To keep out the smell, we drape one blanket over the toilet seat and pile whatever else we can find on top of it," explained Mark Magwiro, a barefoot Zimbabwean detainee clad in a dirty white shirt, which he said had not been washed in two weeks.
Due to the relatively small number of women in Lindela, the female wing is less congested, with as few as six women sharing a large room. Besides better accommodation, women also enjoy generally privileged treatment from security guards and kitchen staff because they help to clean the public halls and their own quarters.
The men, on the other hand, have to compete for the few jobs available on their side of the complex. The rewards can be a loaf of bread, regular access to better food - a constant problem - or, allegedly, help from security staff in arranging an escape.
The first meal of the day includes a bowl of porridge, a thin slice of bread and a cup of tea, served as early as 6 am. Tablets of unknown composition float in the tea, according to the guards, these help to suppress sexual appetite.
Detainees start queuing for lunch from 11:00 am, which can take until 3.00 pm before everyone has been served. Supper times are the most irregular, with the last person being fed as late as 11:00 pm.
For inmates who have something to trade, Lindela offers business opportunities and a captive market. As the guards control access to the landlines, detainees lucky enough to still have their cellphones can charge R4 (US 60 cents) for a one-minute call.
"No one is allowed to use the phones, except at given times. Even then, one has to ask for permission from staff or guards and it is usually denied unless they get R10 (US $1.6). So we provide phoning and charging services, so that detainees can inform their relatives of their plight," said Mozambican Emmanuel Nandza.
Because charging the phones is done via illegal connections to electricity supply lines around the complex, the going rate for a five-minute zap of power is R5.
Those doing menial jobs to earn a loaf of bread make a killing by cutting it into small slices, which they sell to hungry fellow inmates for as much as R3.00 each. Enterprising businessmen can make up to R30 per loaf.
And then there are the "resident detainees" - people who have lived in Lindela for years, even though 30 days is the maximum period. They are mostly Congolese, Nigerians, Mozambicans and Zimbabweans who have no wish to return home and allegedly bribe the security guards to avoid deportation.
"It is safer here than outside. I used to be a street telephone operator outside, so when they caught me I brought my two sets here, only to discover that there is more demand for telephone services than outside. Outside, one has to compete; here there is zero competition. So I thought I would better stay here to avoid harassment and arrest outside," explained one Congolese detainee.
Claims of appalling treatment of asylum-seekers led to a demonstration outside Lindela in November 2004, held to coincide with the final day of a hearing into xenophobia hosted by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and parliament's portfolio committee on foreign affairs.
They heard a litany of alleged abuse at the centre, including heavy beatings by the guards, an increasing number of inmate deaths, and the denial of access to immigration officials.
Head of communications at the Department of Home Affairs, Nkosana Sibuyi, rejected the allegations. He said some Lindela inmates had died of pre-existing medical conditions rather than abuse. "We are guided by country and international conventions, which prohibit any form of ill treatment of detainees," Sibuyi told IRIN.
But, according to the inmates IRIN spoke to last week, it would appear that little has changed since the publication of a report in 2000 by SAHRC, exposing conditions at the deportation centre.
The report 'Lindela: At the Crossroads for Detention and Repatriation' listed poor food, overcrowding, inadequate health services and the systematic denial of basic rights as some of the problems needing urgent attention.
"The three most reported complaints are lack of adequate nutrition, irregular or inadequate medical care, and systematic, forced interruptions of sleep. Similar problems, such as general living conditions, access to information, assault and the treatment of minors, have been added to the list of unsatisfactory conditions at the facility," read part of the SAHRC report.
Proper access to lawyers and the right of detainees to inform relatives of their arrest were violated by curbs on the use of the telephones on arrival at Lindela, the commission found.
However, Sibuyi rejected the allegations. "Each and every room has an allocated number of people and it's not true we exceed that capacity," he told IRIN. He stressed regular check-ups by health inspectors ensured the food served was sufficient and nutritious, and any reports of abuse by the guards was investigated and could be verified by examining the records of the closed circuit TV system.
The detainees IRIN spoke to said corruption was also rampant among staff and guards. An inmate's freedom could be bought, or an escape from the deportation trains arranged for between R600 (US $100) and R800 (US $133).
"Deportation is for those who do not have money. Those who can pay police or immigration officers never get registered [at Lindela]; they just wait for relatives to bring the money. In such cases, a detainee is collected by special arrangement, on the pretext that he is going for further questioning or to court, and freed on the way," said one illegal immigrant. "If I had money I wouldn't be here."
Sibuyi said he could not confirm or deny there was corruption at Lindela, but the Department of Home Affairs had adopted a "zero-tolerance policy" and any official found guilty would be named and dismissed.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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