Mixed fortunes for South Africa's immigrant workers

Cape Town- South Africa (PANA) -- For many, South Africa represents a nation of miracles, a land rich in culture, a country wealthy beyond belief.
But, for the millions of immigrant workers who have crossed South Africa's borders before and after the collapse of apartheid, it is a different story altogether.
For several decades, waves of immigrants have been attracted by the country's rich mines, as well as agricultural resources and bustling cities.
While millions have found work, happiness and acceptance, others have faced poverty, despair and xenophobia.
Unemployed South Africans often vent their frustrations on immigrants whom they accuse of stealing jobs.
Some South Africans have become increasingly more xenophobic.
Politicians are known to have aggravated the situation with inflammatory statements blaming immigrants for the current crime wave and other social ills.
Foreign hawkers, often asylum applicants with temporary residence permits, are at times brutally beaten and their goods stolen.
Yet official police statistics do not bear this out.
In parts of Johannesburg and the surrounding satellite cities, foreign hawkers complain that the police do little in response to their complaints.
One case that attracted international media attention was when six policemen set their dogs on illegal immigrants in a "training exercise".
There were arrests last November, shortly after South African Television showed the dogs being incited by policemen to attack three Mozambicans - Gabriel Pedro Timane, Alexandre Pedro Timane and Sylveste Cose in 1998.
That case is still pending before a Pretoria High Court.
Mozambicans, who constitute the biggest group of foreigners, are known to be particularly vulnerable.
They accuse the police of extortion, and sometimes destroying their documents and threatening them with arrest.
If the immigrants cannot pay, they are transferred to the Lindela centre in Krugersdorp where the exploitation continues.
Guards and immigration officials try to extort money in return for release.
Detainees are allowed to phone friends, relatives or employers to raise the bribe.
Inability to pay means that immigrants will be put on trains back to their homeland.
Even then, guards will demand bribes to allow them to jump off the moving train.
Most immigrants have taken to carrying cash for bribes and regular payments to police officers and immigration officials has become a way of life.
Some avoid police road blocks by leaving for work at 4:30 a.
but often get caught on Friday afternoons, when police know they have been paid.
Some immigrants hide in toilets until late at night to avoid being victimised.
Recent research in Khutsong township revealed that, besides petty harassment, many legal immigrants are denied access to primary health care.
Women are subjected to sexual exploitation by local police officers and their friends.
At the Home Affairs offices officials use go-betweens to collect bribes from desperate immigrants in long queues.
Many have to return up to a dozen times for documents that have long been ready for collection.
South Africa is faced with the tension of having to tighten immigration control and having to conform and live up to the new democratic obligations, according to Dr Anthony Minnaar, a senior researcher at the Institute for Human Rights and Criminal Justice Studies.
Minnaar is also on the organising committee for the Second World Conference on modern criminal investigation, organised crime and human rights, which takes place in December.
He says the xenophobic approach prevalent in South Africa among members of the public and from government officials is essentially a violation of migrant, refugee and foreigner rights.
Of real concern is the complete dearth and lack of acceptance of a rights-oriented approach by officers of the state, who regard immigrants as fair game.
South Africans on the whole fail to make any difference between legitimate immigrants and so-called illegal aliens or undocumented migrant.
"This is despite research reports that foreigners have benefited our economy", he said.
Although the post 1994 influx of legal immigrants includes people from all over the world, Minnaar said those who come from Africa fare worst.
He points out that the United Nations Convention on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers, and members of their families in particular, calls for them to be treated with humanity and respect for their cultural identity.
Moreover, that they are entitled to effective protection by the State against violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation either by public officials, private individuals, groups or organisations.
The Auditor-General's latest report on the Department of Home Affairs reveals that 21,719 people were illegally detained at the Lindela detention centre between August 1996 and September 1999, only to be released once they were identified as South African citizens.
The giant camp in Gauteng is used to house illegal immigrants before they are deported to their home countries, usually the neighbouring states of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho.
In certain cases persons were detained for up to five days before being released.
The Auditor-General indicated that if such persons had been detained for only one day, the Department would have incurred accommodation costs of 68,000 dollars.
The UN has warned that the refugee crisis in Southern Africa has become a time bomb because of the spillover of conflict from the outside into the region as well as an increase in xenophobia.
According to the UNHCR statistics, Zambia is the largest host country of refugees with more than 210,000 refugees followed by South Africa which has more than 14,500 refugees.
The South African government receives more than 60,000 applications for asylum each year, with most of them rejected.
The situation is particularly grave in South Africa which is bracing for a large influx of refugees from Zimbabwe as a result of the unfolding economic crisis in that country.

28 august 2001 19:17:00

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