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South Africa Should Uphold the Dignity of Asylum Seekers

On Human Rights Day, End Abuses Against Asylum Seekers

A woman waves a South African flag as she attends Freedom Day celebrations in Kwa-Thema Township, near Johannesburg. (File photo: April 27, 2019) © AP Photo/Denis Farrell

Today the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and South Africa commemorates Human Rights Day, in remembrance of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when apartheid police killed 69 people protesting “pass laws,” which required Black, Indian, and Colored people to carry identity and permission documents at all times.

Nearly 30 years after the apartheid system was dismantled, document raids in South Africa continue. Now, it is foreigners, including asylum seekers, who are being intimidated by police and immigration authorities. Following the xenophobic attacks in Diepsloot in January, South Africa’s police minister deployed officers to raid and check foreign nationals’ documents, while Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi declared “most people are not documented because they came here to commit a crime.”  

Ongoing Human Rights Watch investigations show that asylum seekers try hard to remain documented. A Bangladeshi man told me about the difficulties he endured to maintain legal status for the past two years while his asylum claim has been pending. Every three months, he has had to travel to Pretoria and sleep outside the Department of Home Affairs to queue early as he tries to renew his asylum seeker permit, although he is often turned away. During raids in August 2019, he was arrested while sleeping in his home. He showed his documents, but the police still beat him and detained him in an overcrowded cell where he was given little food while his documents were verified. During this time the police allegedly lost his documents, and after four days in the cell, he was declared undocumented and sent to a deportation center for three days. A volunteer lawyer intervened, was able to prove that he still had a claim pending, and was able to recover his documents. Still police humiliate him, stopping him on the streets to check his documents, and he wonders if his application for refugee status will ever be approved.

As government responses to COVID-19 impact freedom of movement around the world, South Africans should use Human Rights Day to call on their government to ensure that human dignity is upheld for all people in South Africa and that foreign nationals are not subjected to the same types of abusive practices that were once the norm under apartheid.

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