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02 July 2021 – South Africa

Lawyers for Human Rights, “Strandfontein Homeless Committee Takes on City of Cape Town,” 19 May 2020,
Lawyers for Human Rights, “Strandfontein Homeless Committee Takes on City of Cape Town,” 19 May 2020,

In March 2020, shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, South Africa announced plans to construct a 40-kilometre fence between South Africa and Zimbabwe, which was intended to “ensure that no undocumented or infected persons cross into the country. However, observers have pointed out that COVID-19 cases have been far higher in South Africa than Zimbabwe, suggesting that authorities utilised the pandemic to justify its wider securitisation agenda.

While authorities acknowledged the dangers that the virus poses to confined populations and took steps to release 20,000 low-risk prison inmates, they simultaneously stepped up the arrest and detention of migrants for petty crimes, and continued to arrest, detain and deport undocumented migrants (despite announcing on 25 March that asylum seekers whose visas expire after 16 March would not be penalised or arrested) – justifying such actions as necessary measures to contain the spread of the virus (for more on this, see the 6 November 2020 South Africa update on this platform). As Lawyers for Human Rights reported: “This proves that the preventive measures that were put in place in prisons and detention facilities were tailored only towards natural citizens of the state and further amplifies the dehumanisation of migrants in South Africa” (IDC 2020).

Refugee Reception Offices (RROs) were closed during the pandemic, leaving non-nationals unable to renew permits and register births. In December 2020, however, the Department of Home Affairs announced that permits issued to refugees and asylum seekers would remain valid until 31 January 2021, which was then extended to 31 March 2021. As of May 2021, valid permit holders were permitted to request permit extensions online.

According to the LHR, prisons and detention facilities were operating at 200-300 percent capacity at the start of the pandemic. Ad hoc facilities also appear to have been used to hold non-nationals. According to media reports, police rounded up hundreds of homeless migrants at the start of the pandemic, transferring them to Strandfontein Camp – a tented facility set up by Cape Town authorities in response to the pandemic. The Human Rights Commission documented severe movement restrictions, poor quality bedding, insufficient hygiene levels, and the inability to social distance. While the facility closed on 20 May 2020, a group of 180 people who had been confined in the facility were reportedly moved at night to an unserviced site under a highway overpass in Culemborg, central Cape Town (see the 26 May 2020 South Africa update on this platform for more details).

In May 2020, authorities also designated correctional facilities as temporary immigration detention sites during the pandemic. The “Determination of Correctional Facilities as Places of Detention of Illegal Foreigners Pending Deportation” provides that “illegal foreigners” may be placed in such facilities prior to their deportation or transfer to the Lindela facility “for the duration of the period of the national state of disaster as declared in terms of the Disaster Management Act, 2002 (Act No. 57 of 2002).

Despite borders being closed, authorities continued to conduct deportations during the pandemic. In May 2020, the country’s Minister of Home Affairs ordered deportations to be stepped up following an escape attempt from the Lindela Repatriation Centre and several riots. On 7 May 2020, 94 Lesotho nationals were deported, followed by 527 Zimbabwean nationals two days later.

According to UNHCR, there were 76,754 refugees and 173,461 asylum seekers in the country in 2020. The country has ratified several international human rights treaties including the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. During its review for the third cycle of the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2017, South Africa received migration- and detention-related recommendations, including: “promptly ratify the International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Guatemala) (para. 139.2)” and “improve conditions in detention centres and avoid overcrowding, as well as the detention of migrants (Mexico) (para. 139.113).”

The UN Committee against Torture (CAT), in its concluding observations from its 2019 review of South Africa, said that the State party should (e) Refrain from detaining asylum seekers and foreign nationals in prolonged detention without a warrant at the Lindela Repatriation Centre, promote alternatives to detention and revise policy in order to bring it into line with the Guidelines on the Applicable Criteria and Standards relating to the Detention of Asylum-Seekers and Alternatives to Detention; (f) Ensure adequate living conditions, including by reducing overcrowding and providing hygiene, medical and other services at the Lindela Repatriation Centre, and all other immigration centres and police detention facilities; (g) Ensure that refugees, asylum seekers and foreign nationals and migrants have full access to health care.”