HomeArticlesRough welcome: Could South Africa's new border detention centres turn deadly?

Rough welcome: Could South Africa’s new border detention centres turn deadly?

Experts warn that the country’s overburdened asylum system could leave people trapped at ‘processing centres’ for years.

South Africa is to begin building massive border camps that could eventually house the more than 70 000 people who apply for refugee status annually. But civil society organisations warn that these centres could put migrants’ rights and health at risk. It was announced that cabinet had greenlighted the creation of what the department of home affairs is calling “asylum seeker processing centres” on May 17 after it approved the department’s white paper on international migration.

The centres, the first of which may be at Komatipoort near the Mozambican border, will accommodate asylum seekers until the home affairs department decides whether they qualify for refugee status.

Asylum seekers already undergo a lengthy process to prove that they cannot return to their home countries for fear of war, persecution or violence.

Although the white paper does say that some asylum seekers may be able to leave the centres before their applications have been adjudicated, it is unclear who might qualify for early release.

Currently, those seeking asylum wait about three years to hear whether their application has been successful, according to a 2015 study by the  African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) and legal advocacy group  Lawyers for Human Rights. The longest reported time spent in the system was just under 19 years.

Roshan Dadoo is the regional advocacy officer at the  Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (Cormsa). She says administrative bungling has led to a huge backlog in appeals that could leave people stuck at centres for years.

Continued alleged abuses at Lindela could be a warning

Meanwhile, some experts fear South Africa’s track record with detention centres for migrants does not bode well for the shift to large-scale camps.

The Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp for undocumented migrants has a long history of human rights abuses. In 1999, a South African Human Rights Commission investigation into Lindela found poor nutrition and medical care were common.

A year later, the body cited concerns over living conditions, assault and the centre’s treatment of children, who it is not authorised to house. The commission noted that people who had been transferred to Lindela from prisons often reported that correctional facilities offered better living conditions.

The government has largely ignored reports of abuses at Lindela, said Sharon Ekambaram, the head of the refugee and migrant rights programme at Lawyers for Human Rights.

Ekambaram alleges that access to medical care for detainees had declined since a previous 2014 investigation by the international humanitarian organisation MSF and the commission.

She says there is evidence of “gross medical negligence” at Lindela, including shortages of treatment for HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). When medication was available, people were often forced to pay for it. 

There are indications that conditions in the centre were rife for the spread of HIV because of the lack of condoms. She explains there is also evidence that the centre suffers from poor ventilation, which has been known to increase the risk of TB transmission in detention settings.

Currently, the national health department provides free HIV and TB treatment to people regardless of their immigration status, including prisoners.

She also alleges there is evidence of seven suspicious deaths. In five of the seven deaths, people had allegedly consulted the clinic multiple times only to be given headache tablets or vitamins as their conditions deteriorated. 

Ekambaram alleges that Lindela detainees were beaten with pipes and shot at close range with rubber bullets in April after scuffles broke out between prisoners.

Private security company Bosasa is in charge of the centre. Bosasa Executive director Papa Leshabane says the company’s contract with home affairs precludes it from commenting on conditions at Lindela. Home affairs spokesperson Thabo Mokgola has denied the allegations.

He says detainees were instead peacefully removed after they attempted to assault officials. Mokgola says they had the “intention to riot”.

Ekambaram explains: “The extent of human rights violations we’re seeing at Lindela is worrying. We are concerned that the border centres will be run in a similarly undemocratic way.”

Mokgola maintains that Lindela’s healthcare services meet United Nations standards and are “constantly improving”.

Calls to stop the creation of centres have gone unheard

Civil society organisations have repeatedly called for the planned border camps to be axed in submissions on both the green and white papers.

ACMS research chair on migration Loren Landau has accused home affairs of failing to hold broad consultations on proposed changes to refugee policies.

“The discussions are often announced a few days in advance and only a few people are informed.”

Landau and others say changes to refugee policies put forward in home affairs’ green and white papers were implemented long before the white paper’s approval last week.

Recent amendments to the Refugee Act have, for instance, already curtailed refugees’ right to work and granted home affairs increased power to open and close inland refugee receptions.

Reception offices in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town are already closed, although a court judgment may force home affairs to reopen the Eastern Cape centre. Ekambaram says this has contributed to overcrowding at Lindela.

“People do not get the opportunity to declare their situation. By the time they cross the borders they are arrested and sent to Lindela,” she explains.

Dadoo says that improving existing refugee reception offices would be less expensive than building border camps — and could create jobs.

Mokgola disagrees, saying that processing failed asylum seekers at the border will be cheaper and could help curb abuse of the system by economic migrants posing as asylum seekers.

But new rules are unlikely to stem immigration, says Landau: “The number of people coming into the country will not change, but more people will be pushed underground without documents.”

Who’s watching who?

Changes to refugee regulations could also put South Africa in violation of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, under which South Africa committed to a policy of nonencampment, Dadoo warns.

Mokgola argues there is a distinction between the temporary centres the department will implement and permanent detention camps.

He says government and civil society organisations will also be allowed to monitor processing centres. “We will allow all relevant stakeholders and partners such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR], the South African Human Rights Commission and nongovernment organisations to ensure there is proper monitoring and compliance.”

Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the UNHCR’s Southern Africa office, Markku Aikomus, says it may not have the budget to support centres.

The national health department has also confirmed that clinics in border centres will be monitored just as public clinics and hospitals are, says spokesperson Popo Maja. HIV, TB and STI services will be in line with national policies.

Meanwhile, Home affairs has already approached some organisations, such as international organisation the Jesuit Refugee Service, to possibly provide healthcare in centres. South Africa director Johan Viljoen says the Jesuit Refugee Service’s involvement will depend on whether the UNHCR agrees to sign on to the system.

According to Mokgola, South Africa’s roll-out of detention centres will learn not only from experiences in Lindela but also in countries such as Australia and Canada, which have established processing centres.

These are contexts, Landau says, that have little in common with South Africa. “The general ethos here is not about protection of human rights. It is about ensuring that very few people come into South Africa.”

Joan van Dyk was a health journalist, senior health journalist and news editor at Bhekisisa between 2017 and 2023.