Skip to main content

South Africa: Zimbabwean Migrants Vulnerable to Abuse

Government Officials and Commercial Farmers Violate Migrants’ Basic Rights

In the northern border province of Limpopo, South African police often assault and extort money from Zimbabwean migrants and fail to verify their identity or legal status before deporting them, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 54-page report, “Unprotected Migrants: Zimbabweans in South Africa’s Limpopo Province,” documents how state officials arrest, detain and deport undocumented foreign migrants in ways that flout South Africa’s immigration law. It also documents how commercial farmers ignore basic employment law protections even when they employ documented foreign migrants.

“South African police often mistreat undocumented workers when they arrest them,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “While awaiting deportation at police stations, undocumented migrants are given inadequate shelter and food, and some are detained beyond the 30-day legal limit.”

These abuses on the part of South African officials violate the country’s Immigration Act as well as its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which South Africa ratified in 1999.

Zimbabweans continue to stream into South Africa to escape the deteriorating political and economic conditions at home. Most of them enter the country by crossing the Limpopo River along the border and are undocumented. The vulnerability of the estimated 1.2 million to 3 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, who likely constitute South Africa’s largest community of foreign migrants, is exacerbated by their frequent lack of legal status.

Human Rights Watch also found that the South African government routinely failed to enforce its employment law for farm workers. Rural migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, since commercial farmers often do not comply with basic employment laws, even for documented migrant workers.

“Farmers often simply ignore the minimum wage and openly admit that they pay even the documented workers lower wages than are legally required,” said Gagnon. “Many farmers also make unlawful deductions from workers’ wages, including for housing, which violate government regulations.”

The report also identifies ways in which South Africa’s immigration and employment laws do not provide adequate legal protection for migrants. For example, the immigration law does not permit undocumented workers awaiting deportation to collect their unpaid wages and personal belongings. Also, foreign migrants are legally entitled to obtain workers’ compensation, but in practice they face obstacles in receiving these funds.

“When police officials abuse undocumented migrants, they violate the rights of these migrants under the constitution,” said Gagnon. “When employers pay less than the minimum wage, they compromise migrants’ constitutional rights to fair labor practices.”

Human Rights Watch called on the South African government to enforce and, where necessary, amend its laws to ensure that foreign nationals are able to realize their rights protected in South Africa’s constitution.

“The government should ensure that its officials comply with the laws for arrest, detention and deportation,” said Gagnon. “It should introduce a system for undocumented migrants to report abuses, and investigate and punish officials who violate the law.”

Human Rights Watch called on the South African government to enforce its employment laws by increasing the number of labor inspectors and introducing mechanisms to enable workers to directly report employers who do not meet labor standards, and encouraging nongovernmental organizations to help monitor labor practices.

Human Rights Watch also encouraged the government to rapidly devise a housing policy for all farm workers to meet the government’s constitutional obligations, as specified by the Constitutional Court in 2000, to progressively realize the provision of adequate housing.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country

Topic