The high court in Johannesburg halted the deportation of about 200 foreigners on Tuesday after a legal challenge by a human rights group, which said authorities were unfairly targeting them following xenophobic riots in which seven people were killed.
More than 800 undocumented migrants have been arrested across South Africa in the past three weeks under “Operation Fiela”, a series of raids launched after last month’s violence which was centred on the province of KwaZulu Natal.
The Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) group filed a petition in court on Tuesday seeking legal access to detainees arrested last week, and asked the Home Affairs Ministry to halt their deportations, which were due to start on Wednesday.
Wayne Ncube, co-ordinator of the migration detention unit at LHR, said Home Affairs officials had agreed to halt the deportation for two weeks to ensure the 200 migrants arrested at a Methodist Church in Johannesburg in the early hours of Friday morning had a chance to get legal representation.
“We settled on an order whereby we will get access to all the detainees who were arrested as part of Operation Fiela,” Ncube said. “A list will be compiled and handed over to us regarding every person who was arrested.”
The South Africa government sent the army in to help police arrest ringleaders behind the attacks, but it also launched a series of raids to pick up hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants.
In the latest raid, about 400 immigrants were arrested last Friday in an operation at the Central Methodist Church, a renowned shelter for refugees in downtown Johannesburg.
“Large sections of police have been unleashed on people,” Steve Faulkner, of the Coalition of Movements Against Xenophobia, told reporters. “It was a military operation in the middle of the night … People were herded together and taken to the police station.”
Right to Know, a campaign group, called the mass arrests “state-funded xenophobia”. “The raids were a heavy-handed response that have seen families being separated and led to various human rights abuses,” said spokesperson Murray Hunter.
The government has denied that Operation Fiela is targeting foreign nationals. “We would like to categorically and emphatically state that these claims are far from the truth,” spokesperson Phumla Williams said in a statement.
“This is an operation aimed at making our country safer to enable all people who live in our country to enjoy their freedoms in an environment that is free from crime.”
The People’s Coalition Against Xenophobia has held two protests outside the Johannesburg Central Police Station to oppose the arrests and detention of foreign migrants.
“To equate crime to the presence of undocumented people in our society is not tackling xenophobia, it’s legitimising xenophobia,” Stephen Faulkner said. “It is saying to the general public, we have to tackle xenophobia by getting rid of illegal immigrants.” – Reuters, AFP