Foreigners suffer at hands of police

DESPITE new laws and measures to ensure the humane treatment of suspected illegal immigrants and refugees, reports and allegations persist of police brutality against foreigners, who in most cases have little or no recourse to justice.

Izegwire* has found the South Afri-can experience particularly bad. He described the brutal treatment he suffered at the hands of policemen: “Just because I am a Nigerian, police-men have beaten me up.

“They have broken into and searched my house without a warrant. They have taken my money and planted mandrax, cocaine and all kinds of drugs so that I wouldn’t speak.
But the worst experience was when one white officer confiscated my passport and, not knowing where to find him, I ran all over to police stations in Johannesburg. When I failed to find him, I had to make an application for a new passport at the Nigerian embassy, something that cost me R2500.”

Izegwire said he was willing to be photographed by the Mail & Guardian to show the wounds on his body from beatings by police, if his lawyer advised him that it was okay. At the time of going to press he had not yet given the M&G his answer.

Responding to questions on what the South African Police Service (SAPS) is doing about such incidents, Sally de Beer, the spokesperson for the deputy national police commissioner, said the SAPS has implemented a programme at national level that concentrates only on human rights, and works in close cooperation with the United Nations.

She said lectures on human rights have been included in the police curriculum at basic training level. “Also, our training division gives regular courses to our members whose basic training took place prior to the introduction of these measures.”

Despite these measures, however, there are numerous allegations of police abusing immigrants. Organisations such as Jesuit Refugee Services, the South African Human Rights Commission and Lawyers for Human Rights say these could be on the increase, though they are yet to come up with figures indicating the trend.

Some foreigners told the M&G that a recent photograph in The Star of a policeman punching Burundian refugee Justin Masilya, who reportedly was resisting arrest, was just one example of the abuses they put up with.

Siphiwe Sibeko, who took the photograph, said: “Actually Masilya appeared shocked that he should have the misfortune to run into the police. Afterwards it transpired that he had valid papers, but for some reason he couldn’t show them.”

Masilya said he was scared the police would tear up his papers, thus rendering him an illegal and susceptible to extortion. Crooked police officers are said to routinely extort bribes from foreigners without papers by threatening to deport them, or to take them to the notorious Lindela Detention Centre.

A naturalised South African  speaking on condition of anonymity - said two members of the Johannesburg dog unit demanded R2 000 from him after they stopped his car and discovered he couldn’t speak any African South African language. He said they wanted to see his papers, which prompted him to give them half the amount they were demanding.

Says Lawyers for Human Rights: “A significant number of people apprehended during raids as undocumented immigrants complain that their South African identity documents and refugee permits are confiscated and in some cases destroyed by police officers.”

Reports of police extortion of scared foreigners started in 1994 when South Africa opened its borders. Inability to pay the amounts demanded by police often lead to beatings, arbitrary jailing, deportation and harassment.

Local human rights bodies and international ones such as Human Rights Watch have deplored the abuses, prompting the government to come up with guidelines relating to the arrest of suspected illegals.

The Refugee Act - a piece of legislation enacted in 1998 and believed by lawyers to be one of the most progressive of its kind in the world - states in Article 2 of Chapter 2: “Notwithstanding any provision of this Act or any other law to the contrary, no person may be refused entry into the Republic, expelled, extradited or returned to any other country.”

This law applies to the documented 70 000 foreigners, and the estimated one to two million who have not reported their presence to authorities in South Africa. What this means, say lawyers, is that only the Department of Home Affairs can determine who is or is not a refugee or who can stay in South Africa legally and who must be deported.

*Name has been changed

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