Of no fixed abode

The state rolled out the big guns this week: armoured vehicles, barbed wire and police in bullet-proof vests were deployed, while journalists were barred from the scene.

A major crime operation? Well, not exactly, they were just rounding up fugitives from xenophobic violence—who had been sleeping next to a Johannesburg road for five days—on a charge of obstructing traffic. The women and children were placed in a shelter and the men put in jail, where they have remained all week.

And they will remain there for another week until their next court appearance, because they are also guilty of having no fixed address.

Refugees and asylum seekers are being given the option of repatriation or reintegration—and most see it as a choice between dying here or dying at home. Even those who jumped through the administrative hoops and applied for temporary registration cards allowing them to stay in shelters will be out on the street in two weeks when government closes the shelters. They are expected to return to their homes or find alternative accommodation.

Government claims reintegration is on track but cannot provide specifics or guarantees of safety. It says it is not responsible for the reintegration process, but has “created the conditions for this to happen” through engagement and meetings with communities.

Quite how people who have lost everything, including their jobs, are expected to slot right back into their lives is a mystery. Government has not offered them a resettlement allowance or distress grant.

A large part of the mess lies in home affairs’s failure to manage migration properly, making it difficult for those who want to comply with the law to do so and easy to attach the stigma of illegality to non-nationals.

This week the Human Rights Commission released a scathing report on home affairs’s treatment of non-nationals, which found, among other things, that home affairs officials are taking up to four years to process applications for refugee status instead of the six months required by law.

Apart from a thorough clean-out of a corrupt and incompetent department, what is urgently needed is a more practical reintegration programme for victims of xenophobic violence. The police must provide protection for those who wish to go home, including the eviction of those who have illegally snatched foreigners’ houses, while the social development department must provide short-term “relief of distress” grants to allow people to start afresh.

At the same time the United Nations High Commission for Refugees must step up and provide practical assistance and cash; civil society organisations must continue giving psycho-social support for traumatised refugees; and faith-based organisations must take the lead in facilitating the return of people from camps, police stations and shelters.

But most of all we need a realistic immigration policy, as mooted in the White Paper of the late 1990s before it was buried, which acknowledges that an extremely restrictive policy merely drives migration underground.

This is not a call for open borders and uncontrolled migration, but one which recognises the reality of regional population movement. It would allow us to know exactly who is in the country and give the police more time to spend on real crime fighting.

Beware Big Brother
Two Bills with implications for fundamental constitutional rights are making their way through the parliamentary process. One is the National Strategic Intelligence Amendment Bill, which has implications for privacy; and the other is the Protection of Information Bill, which, in its present form, will have a grave impact on the right to gain access to and impart state information.

The key concern about the former is the provision that gives the intelligence minister the power to authorise interception of foreign communication signals entering, leaving or passing through South Africa.

This differs from the existing laws governing eavesdropping on electronic communication, which are purely domestic and set strict rules for application to a designated judge before interception is approved.

Given the global nature of communication ­- via internet, email and least-cost routing of voice calls—a growing proportion of electronic communication by South Africans would fall within this net, invading their privacy without judicial oversight.

The Protection of Information Bill is even worse, empowering all institutions that exercise public power to classify their documents. The right to do this extends way beyond government departments to parastatals, national key points and other quasi-state bodies.

The basis for classification ranges way beyond what is necessary for South Africa’s core security, extending into areas that will undermine the constitutional principles of open and accountable government.

The Bill makes no provision for independent oversight. Its penalties for unauthorised disclosure are harsh and it does not recognise the need to protect the disclosure of classified information in the public interest.

We strongly urge MPs not to succumb to the siren song of short-term security. Amend these Bills to safeguard the human rights space we won through many years of struggle!

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