SOUTH AFRICA has temporarily suspended deportations following a legal challenge by a human rights group which argued that it was insensitive for authorities to target foreigners, including Zimbabweans, following xenophobic attacks that resulted in the murder of seven people.Over 800 undocumented migrants have been arrested across South Africa in the past three weeks under a blitz called “Operation Fiela-Reclaim”, launched after last month’s xenophobic attacks mainly in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces.
Zimbabwe’s Consul-General Mr Batiraishe Mukonoweshuro yesterday confirmed the suspension of deportations through a High Court order.
“The court order came after foreigners, including 170 Zimbabweans, were raided at Methodist Central Church in Johannesburg on May 8. Human rights activists, however, queried the deportation of the foreign nationals arguing that most of them were not given the opportunity to sort out their documentation, while some of them had valid asylum documents,” said Mr Mukonoweshuro.
He said the human rights activists, who also complained about being denied access to the affected foreigners, felt that the raids were too soon after the xenophobic attacks last month.
South Africa-based Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Gabriel Shumba yesterday condemned the South Africa government for embarking on a deportation blitz so soon after the wave of xenophobic attacks in that country.
“As much as we appreciate that the deportations have been suspended to allow due process, we have grave reservations that this operation took place in an environment of heightened tension during the xenophobic attacks against foreigners, especially Africans. It was ill timed and unfortunate,” said Shumba.
“We also feel that it is not a good thing that the government of South Africa had to be compelled by the High Court to stop the deportations. This shows that the government is not tolerant at all to non-nationals within their borders.”
The lawyer expressed concern over the South African government’s decision to deny foreigners legal advice.
“We also condemn in the strongest terms the fact that after the arrests South Africa refused to permit legal officials to assist the affected foreigners. I believe that this is contrary to the Bill of Rights that exists in the republic’s constitution,” he added.
“There is also congestion at the Home Affairs department, which is delaying the processing of permits at this time when the government is hunting down people like animals.”
According to reports from South Africa, the Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) group filed a court application on Tuesday seeking legal access to detainees arrested last week, and asked for a halt to their deportations which were due to start on Wednesday.
Wayne Ncube, coordinator of the migration detention unit at LHR, said Home Affairs officials had agreed to halt the deportation for two weeks to ensure that the 200 migrants arrested at a Methodist Church in the early hours of Friday morning had a chance to get legal representation.
The xenophobic attacks, which ended after troops were sent to affected areas, had flared up after Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini ordered foreigners to leave South Africa.
Zwelithini has since said his comments were misinterpreted.
The South African government has said Operation Fiela, which means “sweep the dirt”, was meant to address crime and was not only focused on foreign nationals.
Civil society organisations have, however, condemned the raids as institutionalised xenophobia and called on the government to stop them.
They said the operation was only deepening the stigmatisation of foreign nationals and made it difficult for all migrants to integrate into South African society, especially those who had been arrested in the raids.