Business Day, 23 April 2008

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Despite the denials by President Thabo Mbeki and Home Affairs Minister Novisiwe Mapisa-Nqakula, there is a crisis in Zimbabwe; one that threatens to further displace the Zimbabwean people. Both have stated that there is no crisis that warrants any policy or intervention on the part of the government regarding the numbers of people crossing the SA-Zimbabwe border. This intransigent view on the part of senior South African government officials is in fact perpetuating a crisis in SA. Such a crisis is characterised by the ill-treatment and abuse of Zimbabweans fleeing the political oppression and subsequent economic meltdown in that country. Mapisa-Nqakula said on Interface, a current affairs programme on SABC 3, recently that people found without documents would be taken to Lindela and deported. She also said refugees were not deported and that there was no special focus on Zimbabwean deportations. This is simply untrue. Lawyers for Human Rights has assisted a significant number of refugees threatened with deportation. Further, the South African Police Service is building a new detention centre near Musina for Zimbabweans found crossing the northern border. In the meantime, such people are being detained in an old sports hall on a nearly abandoned army base. The conditions of this facility are appalling. The lack of services, access to appeals procedures or the asylum process for those wishing to make applications is a direct violation of SA’s international obligations and domestic immigration, policing and refugee laws. For example, a person who wishes to apply for asylum must make an application within SA at one of five refugee reception offices located in SA’s largest cities. Moreover, our law exempts refugees from prosecution if they have entered SA unlawfully, as long as they intend applying for asylum. This is in recognition of international principles, which acknowledge that most refugees who flee do not carry travel documents or otherwise fear being refused entry at a border crossing. Detainees at the Musina facility are neither given the opportunity to appeal against their deportation nor to inform an immigration officer of their intention to apply for asylum. The evidence of ongoing detention and deportation of Zimbabwean asylum seekers directly contradicts Mapisa-Nqakula’s statement that SA does not deport asylum seekers. The indiscriminate violence against foreigners in SA, both documented and undocumented, goes against the grain in a country committed to respecting the human rights of all people in SA. Mapisa-Nqakula’s insistence that undocumented people will be arrested, detained and deported adds to the climate of intolerance and does not prevent undocumented migration. The overemphasis on immigration control and policing does little to curb xenophobic attacks or to support the duty of the police to protect foreigners against such attacks. Even when the police do intervene, the home affairs department has shown its zealousness to arrest and deport such victims before allowing the police to investigate the attacks. Acknowledging the extent of the crisis in Zimbabwe is the first step the cabinet must take in order to prevent such human rights abuses. Human rights abuses are not only being committed in Zimbabwe but also in SA, where our government is refusing to recognise its own responsibilities. The result is that the crisis in Zimbabwe has spilled over the borders. In order to deal with this, the government must take firm action in Zimbabwe and openly recognise that the situation is a symptom of a crisis that has been continuing for nearly a decade. The government must insist that election results be released immediately and that human rights abuses in Zimbabwe will not go unchecked. The home affairs department must also reveal the plan of action referred to by Mapisa-Nqakula during her interview and allow the public to know how the government plans to deal with the numbers of people crossing the border to escape that crisis. Finally, the international and domestic obligations on the government require it to introduce a plan of action to protect foreign nationals being assaulted and killed by the communities in which they live. The South African Police Service must investigate attacks against foreign nationals, arrest those involved and charge their own members implicated in such attacks. Failure to do so puts the lives of people at risk and leads to the impression that those who attack foreign nationals may do so with impunity. If there is no crisis in Zimbabwe, as the government states, then the deaths of foreign nationals and the lack of a plan to deal with the movement of Zimbabweans into the country is, at the very least, a human rights crisis in SA.