Johannesburg – Naming a police and army operation which arrests foreigners ”Operation Fiela”, which translates to ”clean sweep” implies that those arrested are ”rubbish” and is counter to government’s commitment to crack down on xenophobia, Stephen Faulkner from the People’s Coalition Against Xenophobia said on Tuesday.
He was speaking at a press conference called to express concern over the arrest of large groups of foreign nationals during the nationwide operation days after the government had pledged itself to stop xenophobia following a wave of attacks against foreigners in Johannesburg and Durban in April.
”It is not an exaggeration to say it was a military operation,” said Faulkner of the raids, the latest taking place last Friday in Johannesburg’s CBD and at the Central Methodist Church, which he said symbolises a ”safe haven” for asylum seekers and refugees.
”Untold numbers, including women and children were then herded like criminals to the central police station,” he said.
”They are being compared to rubbish.
”We are asking for a complete rethink of Operation Fiela,” he said.
‘This is increasing xenophobia’
The coalition believes that instead of dealing with crime and social problems, government is ”harassing and arresting on a mass scale” and equating crime with the presence of undocumented people in South African society.
”This is not tackling xenophobia, this is increasing it.”
He said lawyers had not even had confirmation from the police yet of how many people had been arrested.
He was speaking after Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) had managed to finally secure access to those arrested through a second court order in the High Court in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
Earlier on Tuesday, the department of home affairs and the police had narrowly escaped a contempt of court order by finally agreeing to let LHR consult with between 200 to 400 foreign nationals arrested in the raids in Johannesburg last week.
”The parties have come to an agreement. The applicant will be withdrawing the [contempt of court] application,” said LHR advocate Julie-Anne Harwood.
The department of home affairs agreed to pay the costs of the application.
LHR had already secured an order late on Friday after hearing of the arrests, because the police allegedly would not let them see the people arrested.
But, in spite of the order, they were still not able to consult those detained, so they lodged the application for contempt of court on Tuesday.
Now LHR can consult with those being detained at Lindela, a holding facility between Krugersdorp and Randfontein on the West Rand, at Johannesburg Central Police Station, and about 22 women living at a Gift of the Givers shelter with their children.
By noon on Wednesday, the State has to give LHR a list of all those detained and is not allowed to deport any of those arrested for two weeks while lawyers check their documentation and explain their rights to them.
According to some of the affidavits submitted for Tuesday’s application, people were woken up between 03:00 and 04:00 by police and taken outside. Some said they had lost their documents, and others said they were not allowed to go and fetch their documents.
LHR’s David Cote said after the order was granted that about 60 South Africans had also been detained, but were released.
LHR attorney Wayne Ncube said at the coalition’s joint press conference: “It is easy to use ‘illegal foreigner’ as a scapegoat without understanding what the term means.”
Refugee centres closed down
The South African government had made it difficult for people to get the right paperwork by closing down some of its refugee and asylum seeker refugee centres, he said.
Ncube said the deportation process was complicated: it must be verified that a person is an illegal immigrant; then that person’s country, through an embassy or consulate, has to verify that they are from there; and then travel plans can be made.
LHR believed that some deportations had been planned for Wednesday, even though the process is not normally that quick. Not following all the procedures could mean sending somebody – an asylum seeker or refugee – to their death, said Ncube.
Lawyers would now have to check all the procedures that were followed for Friday’s raids, such as the warrants used and check each detainee’s documentation and explain their rights and obligations to them.
Faulkner questioned why the Methodist Church, whose central building was regarded as a haven, had not said anything to condemn the raids.
Asked for comment, government spokeswoman Phumla Williams said: ”We are on record as saying it [Operation Fiela] is a multi-disciplinary intervention of government based on inputs of consultations done for foreign nationals themselves, and communities themselves and consultations the executive did with various communities.”
She said over 77 community engagements were held and over 50 foreign nationals, church and business representatives were consulted and out of that, there was a request to government to intervene in what was happening in communities.
‘Illegal weapons, drugs found’
They asked that drugs, illegal weapons, and people in the country illegally are dealt with.
”I should underline that the people said it is not all foreign nationals.”
Operation Fiela was not targeted at any specific person, but it was uprooting problems in the communities.
”Illegal immigrants were found, drug trafficking was found, illegal weapons were found. No one has been taken who has been in the country legally as a foreigner,” said Williams.
”Anybody who could produce their documentation was not taken. Anybody who did not have an illegal weapon has nothing to fear.”
She said the condition of the children whose parents were detained were checked and ”there was no proof that they were treated unfairly”.
The coalition will meet Gauteng Premier David Makhura next week to discuss its concerns.