The South African government has promised to amend policies and practices to better protect the rights of refugees.
Addressing the International Conference for Women and Family Restructuring in Cape Town this week, Minister of Home Affairs Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula acknowledged that there were limitations in current immigration policies and procedures. In a bid to end the ill treatment of more vulnerable refugees, such as women and girls, she promised to review them.
Her comments were welcomed by human rights lawyer and spokesman for the Zimbabweans in Exile Forum, Gabriel Shumba. "It has always been obvious that women refugees, in particular those with children, suffer the cruellest kind of treatment," Shumba told IRIN.
In her presentation to the conference, Mapisa-Nqakula said, "whilst, generally, there are problems that affect any immigrant who goes through our systems, certain categories of foreigners have had it worse than others, including women, children, asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants".
"Not only do women constitute a large number of these refugees, but they are also the ones that experience the harshest treatment of abuse and humiliation, at times from officials whose duty it is to protect them. Most of the times, women are forced to flee their homes with children on their backs, without food, and very little guarantee of shelter and safety when they arrive at their supposed destinations," added Mapisa-Nqakula.
The minister said she had "always found it disturbing" that policies were not sensitive to this. "Women's issues are not isolated and given special attention in regulating the treatment and protection of refugees globally," she noted.
Mapisa-Nqakula said it was important that governments that were signatories to United Nations and Organisation of African Unity conventions on refugees "should concern themselves with issues such as counselling, safety, reproductive health issues and skills development for women".
The South African government had recently been criticised for its handling of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.
Earlier this month about a 100 immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Angola demonstrated at the Lindela Repatriation Centre outside Johannesburg.
Joyce Dube, a director of the Southern African Women's Institute for Migration Affairs, a rights NGO, told IRIN at the time that "South African authorities do not check whether the immigrants, particularly the Zimbabweans, are genuine asylum seekers - they merely arrest them and deport them".
There have been allegations of ill-treatment at the centre and complaints that immigrants did not have adequate access to sanitation.
Mapisa-Nqakula said she had recently toured the Lindela Repatriation Centre.
"We did find that there are many women who get arrested and taken to the centre for deportation and, while they are kept isolated from the rest of the group, they were not prioritised for transfer to make sure that those who were pregnant, sick or with young children should not stay longer at the centre," she said.
The national immigration branch was working on a policy "that will guide the [home affairs] department in dealing with these specific cases", Mapisa-Nqakula said.
"In the meantime we have directed that, where it is possible, these women should be given priority during such transfers," she added.
Shumba said it was clear that current immigration practices were inadequate, "especially given the treatment of refugees in Lindela".
"When helping women secure asylum or responding to their humanitarian needs ... we reflect that there's a great need to treat women with sensitivity: they need special sanitation and hygienic considerations, for example," Shumba said.
He added that refugees already enjoyed protection under domestic and international law. "What must change is the attitude of the home affairs officials, and other officials that deal with refugees, rather than the laws themselves. We have adequate protection under the law ... what we need to see is a change of attitude, especially the xenophobic attitude exhibited towards refugees."
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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