No detention centre mapping data

South Africa Immigration Detention

A key destination country for migrant labourers from across Africa and Asia, South Africa’s relationship with foreigners has been marked by turmoil in recent years. Simmering xenophobia has repeatedly exploded into violent riots targeting black immigrants and asylum seekers from a number of African countries. Although the country has only one dedicated immigration detention facility, the Lindela detention centre near Johannesburg, officials routinely use police stations and prisons to temporarily hold undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.

Quick Facts

International migrants (2015): 3,142,500
New asylum applications (2016): 35,329

Profile Updated: June 2009

South Africa Immigration Detention Profile

A key destination country for migrant labourers from across Africa and Asia, South Africa’s relationship with immigrants has been marked by turmoil in recent years. In mid-2008, simmering xenophobia exploded into violent riots that rapidly spread throughout the country, targeting black immigrants and asylum seekers from a number of African countries (Misago 2009).

According to a report by the South African Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), although poverty and a sense of relative deprivation among the country’s poor have been key causes of xenophobia, also important are two factors closely related to the country’s apartheid past: a feeling of superiority among both white and black South Africans toward their neighbours and a belief in the exclusivity of their nation. The HSRC report asks, “How does South African nationalism, which has been promoted after apartheid to create social solidarity in a fractured society, ensure that it is open to the diversity of peoples from the region who will continue to be attracted to South Africa?” (HSRC 2008, p. 15).

Detention Policy

South Africa has struggled in its efforts to redefine its immigration policy, which under apartheid rule “was a naked instrument of racial domination” and “the official definition of an immigrant was that he or she had to be able to assimilate into the white population” (Crush 2008). According to the Pretoria-based Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), the country adopted the Immigration Act in 2002 in an effort to bring about “a more progressive, less exclusionary, immigration policy.” However, numerous human right groups, including LHR, have noted serious deficiencies in both the act itself and its implementation, including the act’s focus on preventing unauthorized immigration and the failure of appropriate authorities to follow through with provisions regarding deportation and detention (HRW 2007; LHR 2008). Section 2 of the Immigration Act highlights as one of its primary objectives “detecting and deporting illegal foreigners.”

One of the more notable features of South Africa’s contemporary immigration policy, according to LHR, has been the continued use of detention as the “primary tool of immigration enforcement in a democratic South Africa” (LHR 2008, p. 2). The group contends that although detention is governed by a legal framework provided in the Immigration Act, key provisions of the act have yet to be fully implemented. In addition, “As the South African Human Rights Commission and several human rights organisations have noted, arbitrary and unlawful detentions of illegal foreigners happen with regularity and in contravention of international and domestic human rights guarantees. These abuses are exacerbated by the difficulties involved with monitoring the various locations where foreigners are detained, including prisons, airports, police stations, an old dilapidated sports hall on a military base … and the infamous Lindela Holding Facility” (LHR 2008, p. 2).

Section 34 of the Immigration Act establishes the grounds and procedures related to the detention and deportation of “illegal foreigners.” It authorizes only immigration officers, who are part of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), to detain illegal foreigners for the purpose of deportation. It provides that such detention shall be at a place “under the control or administration” of DHA. Detainees must be notified in writing that they have been detained for the purposes of deportation, and upon request must be provided with confirmation that he or she has been issued a court warrant. If this is not provided within 48 hours, the detainee is to be immediately released. People detained for the purposes of deportation can be held for no longer than 30 days, a period that can be extended for 90 additional days upon issuance of a court warrant stating “good and reasonable grounds” for the extension. People detained for immigration reasons other than deportation can not be held for more than 48 hours. 

Asylum seekers and refugees, whose status is governed by the 1998 Refugees Act, are not officially subject to detention. The Refugee Act provides that there should be no proceedings against irregular non-citizens if they have applied for asylum or are recognized refugees. However, according to LHR, immigration officers “routinely ignore the provisions of the Refugee Act in favour of the Immigration Act’s less burdensome procedures,” which has resulted in cases of prolonged detention of asylum seekers (LHR 2008, p. 3).

Detention Infrastructure

Migrant detainees are held in a range of facilities across South Africa, including police stations, ad hoc facilities run by the police service, prisons, and one dedicated migrant detention center, the Lindela Holding Facility.

The Lindela Holding Facility (also known as the Lindela Repatriation Centre), located 30 kilometres from Johannesburg, is a privately run facility established in 1996 by the DHA and the Dyambu Trust—an organization established by the African National Congress women’s league—as an experimental centre for undocumented immigrants slated for deportation that aimed to relieve overcrowding in nearby Gauteng prison (Berg 2000, p. 75; Special Rapporteur on Racism 1999; Landau et al 2005, p. 30). The centre is located on the site of a former camp for South African miners, and its facilities were initially converted huts that could hold some 1,000 people (Special Rapporteur on Racism 1999). The center, which is now run by the private company Bosasa, has grown considerably since its founding, with press reports claiming that it has a capacity of up to 6,500 (SAPA 2005). A 2009 report by the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa claims that some 50,000 non-nationals are detained at Lindela annually (CORMSA 2009). According to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 human rights report, “There were allegations of corruption and abuse of detainees by officials at the overcrowded Lindela Repatriation Center, the country's largest detention facility for undocumented immigrants. Officers from Lindela were among those convicted by the DCS [Department of Correctional Services] of corruption or abuse” (U.S. State Department 2009).

In the town of Musina, located near the border with Zimbabwe, the South African police service runs the SMG Detention Centre, which the Global Detention Project codes as an “ad hoc” detention site because the police detain people there without proper authorization from immigration authorities (Cote 2009; Venter 2008). SMG (or the Soutpansberg Military Grounds) was initially little more than an exposed, fenced-in camp. After public outcry, detainees were placed in the camp’s former sports facility (Cote 2009). In late 2008, the Department of Home Affairs pulled its staff, leaving the South African Police Service, which is not legally authorized to detain for deportation undocumented foreigners and asylum seekers, to manage the site (Cote 2009; Venter 2008). According to some reports, as many as 15,000 people in a single day have been deported from Musina (Cote 2009). In May 2009, a court ordered that the centre be closed. However, according to a June 2009 NGO report, the "response to this order has been mixed. The facility is now being used to shelter suspected 'illegal foreigners' prior to transportation to the DHA, despite the fact that the facility’s continued operation is unlawful" (CORMSA 2009).

Two prisons run by South Africa’s Department of Correctional Services (DCS) are regularly used to confine unauthorized immigrants on warrant from the DHA, Westville Prison in Durban and Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town (Cote 2009). Typically, detainees at these prisons are held for less than a week, until immigration officials are able to transport them to Lindela or they are released (LHR 2008, p. 11). There are reports of asylum seekers being detained and deported from these prisons (USCR 2008; LHR 2008). There have also been reports of severe overcrowding and other problems at the prisons. For example, according to a media report about a 2007 investigation undertaken by a regional correctional services commissioner, “Westville Prison was alleged to have a high level of corruption and malpractice. The prison's Medium B cells had 4,337 prisoners, but had been designed to accommodate 2,137. In addition, its C1 block, which holds illegal immigrants awaiting trial or deportation, held 63 inmates when it was only meant for 19” (Naidoo 2007).

Police stations and border posts across the country are also regularly used to confine suspected “illegal foreigners” (Landau 2007; Cote 2009). People detained by police or border officials and confined at these facilities are typically held for less than 24-48 hours, until an immigration official has had the opportunity to investigate immigration charges (Cote 2009; LHR 2008, p. 11). A lawyer who represents detained immigrants told the Global Detention Project that in many instances, authorities at these locations summarily deport people back across the border or refuse to hold immigration detainees because they do not have the budget to feed them and they take up space that otherwise must be used to hold criminal suspects (Cote 2009).

There have been reports of a number of abuses being committed at police station lock ups, including summary deportation of asylum seekers, physical abuse, long term detention, the detention of minors, inadequate food provisions, among other allegations (HRW 2007; LHR 2009; Cote 2009). Detention at police stations and border posts is not considered ad hoc when a person is detained under warrant from the DHA, or when the length of detention for suspected immigration violations (without warrant from DHA) is less than 48 hours, the amount of time given authorities to investigate allegations under the Criminal Procedures Act (Cote 2009). Police stations that have reportedly been used to hold suspected unauthorized foreigners in recent years include those in Cape Town, Durban, Musina, Atterdgeville, Mokhado, Polokwane, Komatipoort, Nelspruit, Parkview, and Garsfontein (HRW 2007; LHR 2009).

Facts & Figures

South Africa is the destination for immigrants and asylum seekers from many parts of the globe, though neighbouring countries make up by far the largest percentage. The Migration Policy Institute reports, “The 2001 census, the latest date for which figures are available, showed that the migrant stock included 687,678 migrants from other Southern African developing countries (SADC) countries and 228,318 from Europe. … Other source areas of growing importance included the rest of Africa (41,817) and Asia (40,889). In all, immigrants made up 2.3 percent of South Africa's total population in 2001” (Crush 2008).

The country has seen a surge in asylum claims in recent years, especially as the situation in neighbouring Zimbabwe has grown increasingly dire. According to Human Rights Watch, as of early 2009, there were well over one million Zimbabweans in the country, many of whom had made asylum claims (HRW 2009). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that the total number of pending asylum claims by the end of 2007 was 170,865 (UNHCR 2008).

The Department of Home Affairs keeps statistics on deportations, though its website provides limited access to these figures. The latest figures available on its website (as of April 2009) were from January-August 2006, during which time the country deported 165,270 people (DHA website). Countries with the highest numbers of deportees included Zimbabwe (81,249), Mozambique (69,533), Lesotho (6,658), Malawi (3,990), and Swaziland (2,304).  


  • Berg, Julie. 2000. Private Prisons: International Experiences and South African Prospects. University of Cape Town dissertation. 2000. 
  • Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CORMSA). 2009.Protecting Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Immigrants in South Africa. CORMSA. 18 June 2009. Johannesburg, South Africa.,%20Asylum%20Seekers%20and%20Immigrants%20in%20South%20Africa.pdf (accessed 24 June 2009).
  • Cote, David (Lawyers for Human rights). 2009. Telephone conversation with Michael Flynn (Global Detention Project). 11 February 2009. Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Crush, Jonathan. 2008. “South Africa: Policy in the Face of Xenophobia.” Migration Policy Institute. July 2008. (accessed 10 April 2009).
  • Department of Home Affairs (DHA). Website. “Inspectorate: January 2006 – August 2006 Deportation Statistics.” (accessed 3 April 2009).
  • Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Mr. Maurice Glèlè-Ahanhanzo (Special Rapporteur on Racism).1999. Report by Mr. Glèlè-Ahanhanzo, Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, submitted pursuant to Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/26. Addendum: Mission to South Africa (24 February – 5 March 1998). Commission on Human Rights. E/CN.4/1999/15/Add.1. 27 January 1999.
  • Forced Migration Studies Programme. 2005. "Xenophobia in South Africa and Problems Related to It." Witwatersand University. January 2005.
  • Human Rights Watch (HRW). 2007. “Keeping Your Head Down”: Unprotected Migrants in South Africa. Human Rights Watch. February 2007.
  • Human Rights Watch (HRW) Press Release. 2009. “South Africa: End Strain on Asylum System and Protect Zimbabweans.” HRW. 8 January 2009.
  • Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). 2008. Violence And Xenophobia: In South Africa: Developing Consensus, Moving To Action. HSRC. 2008.
  • Immigration Act. 2002. Act No. 13 of 2002. Government Gazette. 31 May 2002. (accessed 15 April 2009).
  • Landau, Loren B., Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Gayatri Singh. 2005. Xenophobia in South Africa and Problems Related to It. Forced Migration Studies Programme, University of Witwatersand. January 2005.
  • Landau, Loren. 2007. Telephone conversation with Michael Flynn (Global Detention Project). 19 March 2007. Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR). 2008. Monitoring Immigration Detention in South Africa. Lawyers for Human Rights. December 2008.
  • Misago, Jean Pierre (with Loren B. Landau and Tamlyn Monson). 2009. Towards Tolerance, Law, and Dignity: Addressing Violence against Foreign Nationals in South Africa. International Organisation for Migration. February 2009.
  • Naidoo, Amelia. 2007. “Prisons Overcrowded, Courts Overloaded in KZN.” The Mercury. 6 March 2007.
  • Refugee Act. 1998. Act No. 130, 1998. Government Gazette. 2 December 1998. (accessed 12 April 2009)
  • South Africa Press Agency (SAPA). 2005. "Lindela 'Running at a Loss." SAPA. 18 March 2005.
  • UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 2008. Statistical Yearbook 2007. UNHCR. December 2008.
  • U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR). 2008. World Refugee Survey 2008. USCR. 2008.
  • U.S. State Department. 2009. 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. U.S. State Department. February 2009. (accessed 19 April 2009).
  • Venter, Zelda. 2008. “Notorious Detention Facility Closes.” Pretoria News. 11 November 2008.

Centres List

No detention centres data available

Statistics Expand all


Criminal prison population


  • Criminal prison population
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Percentage of foreign prisoners


  • Percentage of foreign prisoners
PercentageObservation Date


Prison population rate (per 100,000 of national population)


  • Prison population rate (per 100,000 of national population)
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  • Population
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International migrants


  • International migrants
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International migrants as a percentage of the population


  • International migrants as a percentage of the population
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  • Refugees
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Ratio of refugees per 1000 inhabitants


  • Ratio of refugees per 1000 inhabitants
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Total number of new asylum applications


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Refugee recognition rate


  • Refugee recognition rate
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Stateless persons


  • Stateless persons
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Domestic Law Expand all

Legal tradition Show sources
NameObservation Date
Common law

Constitutional guarantees? Show sources
NameConstitution and ArticlesYear AdoptedLast Year Amended
YesConstitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, as amended in 2013. Chapter 2 - Bill of Rights Section 10, Section 27 and Section 35 on human dignity and rights specific to detention.19961996
Core pieces of national legislation Show sources
NameYear AdoptedLast Year Amended
Refugees Act of 1998, as amended by the Refugees Amendment Act 10 of 201519982015
Immigration Act 13 of 2002, as amended by Act 19 of 200420022004
Regulations, standards, guidelines Show sources
NameYear Published
Annexure B of the Regulations to the Immigration Act sets out the Minimum Standards of Detention.2015

Immigration-status-related grounds Show sources
NameObservation Date
Detention to establish/verify identity and nationality2015
Detention to effect removal2015

Maximum length for administrative immigration detention in law. Show sources
Number of DaysObservation Date
Maximum length of detention for asylum-seekers Show sources
Number of DaysObservation Date

Provision of basic procedural standards Show sources
NameIn LawIn PracticeObservation Date
Access to free interpretation servicesYes2015
Right to legal counselYes2015
Independent review of detentionYes2015

Is the detention of vulnerable persons provided in law? Are they detained in practice? Show sources
NameIn LawIn PracticeObservation Date
Asylum seekersProhibitedYes2015
Unaccompanied minorsProhibited2015
Persons with disabilitiesProhibited2015

International Law Expand all

Ratio of relevant international treaties ratified
Individual complaints procedure Show sources
NameAcceptance Year
ICERD, declaration under article 14 of the Convention1998
ICCPR, First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 19662002
CEDAW, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 19992005
CAT, declaration under article 22 of the Convention1998
CRPD, Optional Protocol to o the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities2007
Ratio of complaints procedures accepted Show sources
NumberObservation Date
Relevant recommendations issued by treaty bodies Show sources
NameRecommendation ExcerptRecommendation Year
Human Rights Committee37. The State party should ensure that detention pending deportation is applied as a last resort only, with special regard being given to the needs of particularly vulnerable persons, and that individuals detained for immigration-related reasons are held in facilities specifically designed for that purpose. The State party should also strengthen its efforts to ensure adequate living conditions in all immigration centres by reducing overcrowding, providing adequate health-care services and ensuring proper sanitary conditions.2016

Regional legal instruments Show sources
NameYear of Ratification (Treaty) / Transposed (Directive) / Adoption (Regulation)
ACHPR, African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights1996
ACRWC, African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child2000
APRW, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol)2004

Relevant recommendations of the UN Universal Periodic Review Show sources
Recomendation IssuedYear IssuedObservation Date

Institutions Expand all

Custodial authority Show sources
AgencyMinistryMinistry TypologyObservation Date
Immigration ServiceHome AffairsInterior or Home Affairs2009
South African Police Service2009
Detention Facility Management Show sources
Entity NameEntity TypeObservation Date
Bosasa/Leading Prospects TrainingPrivate For-Profit2009
South African Police ServiceGovernmental2009
Department of Correctional ServicesGovernmental2009
Formally designated detention estate? Show sources
Formally designated immigration detention estate?Types of officially designated detention centresObservation Date
YesDedicated immigration detention facilities2018
YesPolice stations2018
Types of detention facilities used in practice
Immigration detention centre (Administrative)Immigration field office (Administrative)Transit centre (Administrative)Reception centre (Administrative)Offshore detention centre (Administrative)Hospital (Administrative)Border guard (Administrative)Police station (Criminal)National penitentiary (Criminal)Local prison (Criminal)Juvenile detention centre (Criminal)Informal camp (Ad hoc)Immigration detention centre (Ad hoc)Surge facility (Ad hoc)Observation Date

Detention contractors and other non-state entities Show sources
Name of entityType of entityDetainee transportFood servicesHealth careSocial servicesLaundry servicesLegal counsellingManagementOwner of detention facilityRecreationSecurityTelephone serviceTranslation servicesObservation Date
Bosasa GroupFor profitYesYesYesYesYesYesYes2016

Socio Economic Data Expand all

Gross Domestic Product per capita (in USD) Show sources
Gross Domestic Product per capita (in USD)Observation Date
Remittances to the country Show sources
Remittances to the country (in millions USD)Observation Date
Remittances from the country Show sources
Remittances from the country (in millions USD)Observation Date
Unemployment Rate Show sources
Unemployment RateObservation Date
Net official development assistance (ODA) (in millions USD) Show sources
Net official development assistance (ODA) (in USD)Observation Date
Human Development Index Ranking (UNDP) Show sources
Human Development Index Ranking (UNDP)UNDP four-tiered rankingObservation Date

Pew Global Attitudes Poll on Immigration Show sources
% who agree with the statement “We should restrict and control entry of people into our country more than we do now.”Observation Date

Country Links

Additional Resources

There and Back Again: On the Diffusion of Immigration Detention

From Mexico to the Bahamas, Mauritania to Lebanon, Turkey to Saudi Arabia, South Africa to Indonesia, Malaysia to Thailand, immigration-related detention has become an established policy apparatus that counts on dedicated facilities and burgeoning institutional bureaucracies. Until relatively recently, however, detention appears to have been largely an ad hoc tool, employed mainly by wealthy states in exigent circumstances. This paper uses concepts from diffusion theory to detail the history of key policy events in several important immigration destination countries that led to the spreading of detention practices during the last 30 years and assesses some of the motives that appear to have encouraged this phenomenon.

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