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06 November 2020 – South Africa

Voice of America,
Voice of America, "Mozambican Miners Return to South Africa as COVID-19 Blockade Lifts," 19 July 2020,

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been widespread concerns about the spread of infection in prisons and amongst vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers (see the 30 March update). An article published in the International Journal for Equity in Health highlights how the restrictive measures implemented by the South African government early on in the pandemic failed to take into account the “economic and health impact of the pandemic on asylum-seekers, refugees, and undocumented migrants.” The article, titled “Unspoken inequality: how COVID-19 has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities of asylum-seekers, refugees, and undocumented migrants in South Africa,” was authored by several South Africa health experts, including from the South African Medical Research Council. It concludes that the COVID-19 “containment measures adopted by the SA government through the lockdown of the nation have tremendously deepened the unequal treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees in SA. This can be seen through the South African government’s lack of consideration of this marginalized population in economic, poverty, and hunger alleviation schemes.”

According to the authors: “Organizations working with foreign-born migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic containment measures have raised concerns regarding the arrest and detention of foreign-born migrants, their placement in, and subsequent repatriation from camps and shelters. There are also reports that foreign-born migrants are more likely to be arrested for minor offenses during the lockdown period and less likely to be released on bail because of expired documentation. The closure of the Department of Home Affairs, which is responsible for renewing and issuing refugee permits, asylum permits, and residence permits, has made many foreign-born migrants vulnerable to harassment and extortion by law enforcement agents who are likely to ignore the moratorium on arrests of all those whose permits expired during the lockdown. Migrants are consequently less willing to seek testing or care for COVID-19 symptoms as they are afraid of being detained or deported. These repatriation centers and prison stations are also prone to overcrowding, making it challenging to practice social distancing and recommended hygiene measures. Under such conditions, these foreign-born migrants are at heightened risks of contracting COVID-19 but tend not to seek care when they notice the signs and symptoms of COVID-19, which makes them more likely to spread or die from the disease.”

Among the key issues highlighted by NGOs has been the ongoing closure of the country’s Refugee Reception Offices (RRO’s), responsible for migrant permit renewals as well as birth registrations, which have been closed since March. One impact of this closure has been that access to places of detention by lawyers has become more limited, according to experts from Lawyers for Human Rights. The group points to severe overcrowding in prisons and detention facilities, which were reportedly at 200-300 percent capacity when the pandemic began. The group indicates that while almost 20,000 inmates have been released in South Africa during the pandemic, immigration detention has increased. They also denounce the lack of accountability mechanisms for law enforcement misconduct.