HUNDREDS of Zimbabwean asylum seekers are languishing in unlawful detention centres in South Africa regardless of court rulings stating that it was illegal to arrest and imprison refugees, the South African Lawyers for Human Rights revealed this week.
Most of the asylum seekers were arrested in 2008 when they were protesting outside the Chinese embassy against a shipment of arms through South Africa to Zimbabwe, according to organisations that represent Zimbabwean exiles.
Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) said in a statement the continued detention of Zimbabweans was unconstitutional and should be reversed immediately.
The North Gauteng High court on Monday ruled that the South African Home Affairs department’s practice of arresting and detaining asylum seekers without verifying their status or allowing access to the refugee system was illegal.
The LHR said the Monday judgment confirmed prior complaints against prolonged detention of asylum seekers who were not given an opportunity to explain their immigration status.
The LHR’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme coordinator Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh said: “This judgment is consistent with the repeated findings of our courts that the excessive use of immigration detention by Home Affairs is unlawful, unconstitutional and a violation of our international obligations.”
The lawyers said the judgment on the unlawful detention of Zimbabweans was a call on the Home Affairs department to release suffering asylum seekers and also revisit its flawed immigration policies.
They said South Africa had an international obligation to protect asylum seekers and refugees; to promote and respect of human rights.
“We call on the Minister of Home Affairs to carefully peruse the judgment and consider the practices of immigration officials in terms of South Africa’s international obligations and the Constitution,” said the LHR.
The South African court ruled that the undue delays in issuing documents under the Refugees Act was inconsistent with the Act and the detention of asylum seekers who had made applications but not yet received their permits was in contradiction with South African laws.
The court held that “It is simply untenable in a constitutional democracy that someone should have to give up their liberty on account of administrative difficulties or inefficiencies on the part of an organ of state.”
The Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (Zef) said South Africa’s refugee reception offices were in complete disarray and unable to deal with the number of people seeking protection.
Zef, which advocates for the rights of Zimbabweans living abroad, said the majority of the detained locals were locked up at Lindela although some of them were released two years ago following a court order.
“Despite the court ordering the immediate release and issuance of permits to those who had been detained back in 2008, Zef persisted in bringing comprehensive challenge against the department’s unlawful policies and practices in detaining asylum seekers,” said the Pretoria based Zef executive director Gabriel Shumba.