August 21, 2006

Zimbabwean migrants often abused in South Africa, says report

A lack of legal safeguards is allowing South African police to regularly assault and extort undocumented immigrants from neighbouring Zimbabwe, a U.S.-based human rights group said in a report. Human Rights Watch also charged that Zimbabweans awaiting deportation from South Africa were often kept in uncovered holding cells, where they were fed irregularly and detained for more than the legal 30-day limit. "It's not possible to say it's just a few bad apples. There really is a systemic problem. The primary problem is the (poor) enforcement of perfectly acceptable laws," said Norma Kriger, the lead author of the report. The group's accusations were based on research and interviews with Zimbabweans in Limpopo, the South African province which is a key transit route for those seeking to get out of Zimbabwe, which has experienced eight years of economic recession. One undocumented immigrant claimed that police let him go on four separate occasions after he agreed to pay a bribe, according to Kriger. "It's common practice for the police to ask for money or items, and if you can provide them with what they want you won't be arrested," Kriger said.
South African police, however, said the report had vastly overstated the problem, adding that the handful of isolated cases of alleged police abuse of undocumented aliens had been dealt with swiftly and decisively. "These cases are the minority," said Superintendent Chris Wilken, spokesman for the Johannesburg police, who stressed that the police were not targeting Zimbabweans or any other nationality. "Whatever crime is committed - whether you are Zimbabwean, Mozambiquean, South African, etc - the police will act against you," he said. South Africa's home affairs department, which oversees immigration matters, also defended its record and denied that authorities were allowing some to bribe their way into Africa's economic powerhouse.
In the meantime, South African Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana and his Zimbabwean counterpart Nicholas Goche have opened Africa's first migration office at Beit Bridge border post on the joint border, a spokesman for the labour ministry has announced. "The office, a first of its kind in Africa, will help Zimbabweans seeking employment in South Africa with legal papers," Labour Department spokesman Mokgadi Pela said. It would also help needy Zimbabweans with food and other basic amenities while their legal documents are being processed, he added. "The office includes among others an HIV/AIDS counselling centre. It will also serve as the centre point for the World Food Programme," Pela said. The office would receive about 2.000 Zimbabwean deportees repatriated on a weekly basis from South Africa. The number of legal and illegal Zimbabweans living in South Africa, who have fled the severe political and economic crises in their homeland, is estimated at 2.5 million. (Rts)

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