December 7, 2005

UNHC: Improvements in immigrant detention centre

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has welcomed improvements to facilities at South Africa's controversial Lindela Repatriation Centre, where undocumented and illegal foreigners are held before being repatriated. The centre outside Johannesburg was singled out by Human Rights Watch for ill-treating refugees and running a poor healthcare system. Since the beginning of the year over 45 people, mostly Zimbabwean asylum seekers, have died, mainly of disease, and more than 400 were hospitalised.

UNHCR Regional Representative Ebrima Camara, who is based in Pretoria, toured Lindela and said in a statement that there were now no children and only a few women at the centre, reflecting reforms enacted after a government-appointed commission investigated the deaths of inmates. Previously there were high numbers of both women and children.

However, Camara noted that UNHCR was still concerned by the absence of a link in the databases between various government departments to ensure that registered refugees and asylum seekers were not incarcerated in Lindela and then deported in violation of international agreements. According to her, the number of inmates had been visibly very low compared to numbers seen during the previous visits by UNHCR.
Lindela is the only government-run detention centre in South Africa and the department of home affairs has taken direct control from a sub-contractor as part of the minister's recommendations. The number of inmates has been reduced to prevent the overcrowding that had caused problems in the past. Only 500 men were being held at the time of the visit and officials said there would be no return to the times when more than 4,000 were held at Lindela, UNHCR noted. The refugee agency also said it welcomed improved access for NGOs working with the detainees and an increase in the number of professional immigration officers at the facility. Sanitary conditions and medical facilities had also improved.

Camara also stressed that an earlier computerised system - designed to quickly identify and screen out those who should not be at Lindela, such as refugees, asylum seekers and South Africans - had been unsuccessful and the National Immigration Branch (NIB) had now taken on the responsibility for improving the system. (Rts)

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