The raids across the country in the past three weeks under Operation Fiela-Reclaim are set to continue as long as they are required, Cabinet decided this week.
Acting Cabinet spokesperson Phumla Williams, speaking to the media on Thursday following a Cabinet meeting the day before, said the operation, which has resulted in the arrest of more than 800 undocumented migrants, was not specifically targeted at foreigners.
“Operation Fiela is targeted in certain areas, which were areas pointed out to government by the communities as drug infested. These areas that the operation focuses on might have a lot of foreign nationals but there are also South Africans who are living in those areas. The arrests that have been made are not necessarily foreigners; they are South Africans who were found with illegal weapons and drugs.
“As a country that prides itself with having the best and most liberal Constitution in the world, we have taken a centre stage on human rights issues, [and] as such we cannot authorise an operation that will violate the human rights of any individuals or groups.”
The operation was launched after xenophobic violence swept through KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng last month.
Williams said while it was understood that the South African National Defence would support the operation until June, it would not stop then and would continue as long as it was required.
“There is no plan to stop in the event there is a need to continue with the raids that we are currently doing. We are intending to continue with them.”
Williams said the mandate of the inter-ministerial committee on migration set up to deal with xenophobic attacks would not also end in June.
“We want to tackle a number of underlying issues, for instance, around immigration, [and] licencing that is being identified as one of the causes of the problems. There are quite a number of issues that they are still looking at,” said Williams.
Williams was standing in for Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, who is ill.
The Eskom crisis and the Burundi coup were not discussed in the meeting. However, Cabinet approved the hosting of the 25th International Railway Safety Council Meeting and agreed that the African Maritime Transport Charter be submitted to Parliament for ratification.
‘Sweep the dirt’
Civil society organisations have condemned the raids as institutionalised xenophobia and called on the government to stop the arrests.
“We are calling on government to immediately fully end Operation Fiela, and similar activities, which only serve to make foreign migrants more insecure in South Africa, and go against previous promises of government, in the face of xenophobic violence, to build social cohesion, said a statement from Sonke Gender Justice, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and Grassroot Soccer South Africa.
The statement said while Operation Fiela, which means “sweep the dirt”, was ostensibly to address crime, it had instead focused primarily on foreign nationals.
“The arrests of hundreds of men and women through Operation Fiela have reportedly resulted in the loss or confiscation of property of foreign nationals, including the documentation that many migrants and refugees are holding to show that they are legally in South Africa. Families are being torn apart, as men and women are often separated from each other and their children; adults are being sent to the Johannesburg Central Police Station while children are taken, sometimes without their parents, to refugee camps,” said the statement.
They said the reality was that Operation Fiela was only deepening the stigmatisation of foreign nationals in South Africa, especially those from other African countries, and made it difficult for all foreign migrants to integrate into South African society, especially those who had been arrested in these raids.
“We demand that instead of continuing with these violent and human rights infringing raids and arrests, the government should focus its efforts on providing quality education, creating jobs and getting people out of poverty. Current state-led raids which disproportionately target African foreign nationals and paint them as criminals, are simply an attempt to divert attention from the ongoing socio-economic problems that have not been caused by immigrants, and will certainly continue whether or not foreign migrants live in South Africa.”