By Josephine Chinele
He was confused to find himself in a van truck, full of people speaking various languages which he could not understand.
No sooner had he realized that the vehicle was sweeping out illegal immigrants from the streets of Johannesburg than he regretted his decision to go out that day.
“I felt this was a mistake… I was not an illegal immigrant. I was at the Home Affairs offices to apply for an extension of my Visa. But this was before the one I had expired,” recalls the former detainee, who prefers to be called John.
He explains that he left his home town (Mangochi) for South Africa in search of greener pastures. John secured a job as a painter at a certain church but wanted to stay longer, so he went to the Home Affairs Department to ask for an extension.
“The day the interview was scheduled to take place happened to be a holiday and the offices were closed. I went back the following day. I explained my issue to the person I met at the reception, who directed that I should wait at a certain designated area within the premises.”
“I went there, innocently, and before I realized what was happening, I was in the van truck to Lindela detention camp,” John narrates.
The Republic of South Africa (RSA) says the Lindela Holding Facility is a detention facility established by the Department of Home Affairs in Gauteng for illegal immigrants who are in transit back to their countries of origin, while they await finalisation of all the necessary arrangements.
According to John, there is a mixture of nationalities but it is up to individuals to look for their fellow country mates for security reasons.
The detainees are provided with food three times a day. They are provided with breakfast (two slices of bread and tea), Lunch (Pap/ Nsima served with meat, fish or chicken) and the same for dinner.
“The food appears to be left overs and almost expired from big supermarkets. The food is usually in small quantities, not enough for an adult,” he alleges.
Reasons for migration
The brief document which Malawian Consul General in South Africa submitted to the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Manpower development in 2016 says half of the people that are detained at Lindela are Malawians.
The document says this is the case because they stay longer at the facility than all other nationals due to logistical challenges they face on their way home by road. From South Africa, Malawians pass through Zimbabwe and Mozambique, countries which have policies which require people traveling through their territories to have proper documents.
Most detainees at Lindela holding facility are unskilled workers who have contravened immigration laws of RSA. Others are there because they committed various crimes in that country and are awaiting deportation.
According to the brief document from the Malawian Consul General in South Africa the majority of Malawians go to South Africa for employment because their minimum wage is better than that of Malawi.
South Africa’s minimum wage is R3, 500 (about (MK206, 500) while Malawi’s minimum wage is MK25, 000.
Our investigations have established that in pursuit of higher earnings, most Malawians are suffering various forms of abuse for fear of returning home and becoming jobless.
In the heart of Johannesburg, many Malawians are employed in shops. Some get the minimum wage while others get less and are subjected to all forms of abuse.
They however cannot report anywhere because they are illegal immigrants.
“Sometimes if you try to fight for your rights, the ‘bosses’ report you to the authorities to come and arrest you. When such things happen, you go back home with literally nothing,” says Alufeyo, one of the Malawians who live and work in Johannesburg.
He further says most police officers are aware of the fact that most Malawians are living in South Africa illegally and they usually demand their Identifications.
“Even when people are at the waiting bay of Park Station going back home, the police come to harass them.
They ask for their IDs and if they find a fault in them (usually overstay) the people are asked to pay something to protect themselves from being taken to Lindela. Malawians are mostly the victims, unlike other nationalities,” Alufeyo laments.
He adds: “Others have been arrested at the Park Station and taken to Lindela. People have lost everything they have worked for.”
Somehow corroborating with Alufeyo’s claims, John says even at Lindela, people are told to ‘make a plan’ if they want freedom.
“There is lots of corruption at this camp. Some people are caught when they have money, some when they have nothing.”
“Those that have some money may bribe their way out. Those that don’t have anything, it’s their own funeral. They sorely rely on the food provided at the camp but they literally have no toiletries,” he says.
John stresses that most Malawians who are living illegally in South Africa have no kind words for Lindela camp because of its harsh environment.
Life at Lindela camp
The detainees are provided with bedding and the camp has ‘double decker’ beds which, in extreme situations, are occupied by two people. At times, the camp is full and others sleep on the floor, but they are provided with bedding and mattresses.
There is a high probability of contagious diseases such as scabies, tuberculosis among others. Each room has the capacity of about 40 people, and there is a television in each room.
The holding camp also has a clinic which provides medical care to those in need. But John says the clinic is not reliable.
“The clinic is not well stocked with drugs and you can’t trust what they are giving you. People die here and I witnessed one death. …Days later I fell sick but I was afraid to take their medication,” John recalls, adding that women have given birth whilst at the centre while others are detained together with their toddlers.
Crime rate is also very high at Lindela camp. At times, this happens in full view of the guards, who do not act because they are either few in numbers and may easily be overpowered or because they are corrupt.
“Where-ever you are going, you need to carry your belongings with you as security is not guaranteed. You need, by all means, to make allies so that they should carry your belongings for you when you are either in the loo or taking a bath,” John reveals.
RSA government’s side of the story
The RSA Department of Home Affairs through the High Commission of the Republic of South Africa in Malawi says a majority of illegal immigrants from Malawi are aged between 22 to 35 and undocumented, having entered the country illegally for economic purposes.
Upon arrest, they are detained at the police station and charged criminally with the violation of the Immigration Act 13 of 2002. An investigation is conducted to confirm the illegal status of the person within 48 hours. If found guilty at the magistrates court, the sentence which is meted out is a prison term which must be served in full or partly, a wholly suspended prison term, or alternatively, the payment of a fine.
The person might have been arrested for a criminal offence including robbery, theft, assault (common or with intent to cause grievous bodily harm), rape or murder, and the immigration violation is included once they are unable to prove their legal status in the country.
“Once handed over to the Immigration Officers, the illegal immigrants must appear in court within 48 hours for confirmation of the detention by a magistrate. It is only on conclusion of the court process that a deportee can be transferred to Lindela,” reads the South African government’s emailed response.
The SA government explains that on arrival, a Pre-medical Screening Test is conducted by a nurse and a questionnaire administered to obtain information on any existing medical condition, primarily to determine whether it precludes the person’s admission at the facility.
In the event that chronic medication was issued to the person previously, steps are taken to ensure the continuity of treatment by the doctor and nurses in the clinic inside the facility. The department has worked closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the initiation of the service, and the organisation continues to play a monitoring role.
In relation to deportees who have been released from hospitals, the treating doctor is required to issue the Immigration Officer with a certificate that s/he is fit to travel, before they can be handed over for deportation. Age assessment and pregnancy tests are conducted to prevent the detention of minors and pregnant women.
The South African government has confirmed that that Lindela facility provides three meals to the deportees but added that it makes provision for those with special dietary needs. “A clinic is operated for 24 hours and an isolation room is available for persons who have developed infectious diseases such as TB and Pneumonia while at the facility but have been discharged from hospital,” reads the response.
It says during the day, the deportees are able to engage in recreational activities, including football and access to books at the library.
The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is mandated to provide oversight over the whole facility. The same is applicable to the judiciary, and the departments of Health and Labour.
The legal representatives from private companies and institutions arrange appointments to conduct consultations with the deportees, and obtain Power of Attorney to proceed with the proposed legal action.
The ICRC also provides a telephone service to deportees to enable them to contact relatives at their countries of origin, informing them that they are in the process of deportation and request whatever support can be given by family or friends.
Vulnerable groups which consist of mothers with children, unaccompanied minors, the elderly, are not accepted at the facility but arrangements are made to transfer them to places of safety and Shelters managed or overseen by the Department of Social Development.
John says the detainees that have traveling documents usually do not take long to be repatriated back home as the embassy just process their travel back home.
“I stayed there for two weeks only but there were other people I found and left there. Others stayed even up to four months. I came here by air and I was dumped at Kamuzu International Airport.”
“I walked from Kia to Lumbadzi where I took a bus to the Lilongwe main depot to board a connecting bus to my home village. No one gave me money, I was just lucky that by the time I was arrested, I had something on me. When you have money, it’s important to take extra care of it to avoid over spending as it is not known when exactly you would be leaving Lindela,” he narrates.
Last week, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services revealed that About 16,369 Malawians have been deported from various southern African countries in the past four years, those from South Africa topping the list.
Even though the department of Immigration and Citizenship Services is trying very hard to prevent this from happening through various means, the office has admitted to have been frustrated by lack of resources such as mobility challenges and lack of proper equipment to conduct border patrols to check on people smugglers who facilitate these illegal movements.
Public Relations Officer for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services, Joseph Chauwa said last year alone, 3988 Malawians were deported; 4380 in 2016, 3824 in 2015 and 4177 in 2014.
“Some people still don’t listen to our advice. They decide to travel without proper documents. As a department, we are facing mobility challenges and lack of proper equipment to conduct border patrols and check on people smugglers who facilitate these illegal movements,” he admits.
According to the Department of Immigration, the deportees usually come from South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Whose money is used?
Chauwa admits that most of the deported Malawians use unchartered routes to bypass authorities who conduct searches in vehicles exiting the country to make sure that only those with valid travel documents are allowed to exit the country.
South African High Commissioner to Malawi, Thenjiwe Mtintso, is on record as saying people need to adhere to immigration regulations of a particular country, regardless of the existing diplomatic ties.
“Much as there is freedom of movement, people have to travel within the law. Malawians should be discouraged from traveling not only to South Africa but to any country when they don’t have proper documents,” she said, when she presented her letters of Credence upon assuming her role as South African High Commissioner to Malawi in February 2017.
Malawians’ deportation has consistently been draining tax payers’ resources as the government is, at some point, supposed to cater for their repatriation.
In 2015, Malawi government spent K340 Million on hiring 40 buses that ferried about 2,000 Malawians that were caught in xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
In 2016, Malawi government was also responsible for the repatriation of four people who were shot dead in Mozambique in the course of using unchartered routes on their way to South Africa in search of greener pastures.