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Press statement on Operation Fiela

Press statement: Civil society organisations address media on the ongoing raids targeting foreign nationals

Johannesburg, 12 May 2015 – The recent spate of xenophobic attacks and the subsequent crackdown of Operation Fiela-Reclaim (“clean sweep”), in a show of institutional xenophobia, have occurred during Africa month in which Africa Day – which commemorates African unity – is celebrated. Not only have these events severely affected South Africa’s reputation internationally and fostered a culture of fear among migrant communities within the country, but they have prompted vocal opposition from other African countries around the continent. The question must be asked whether there is anything to celebrate, while these raids continue, and in the absence of effective measures to combat xenophobia.

While these “clean sweep” operations are conducted under the banner of crime-combatting efforts, there seems to be an unfortunate pattern of these raids being used, rather, to unfairly target foreign nationals in South Africa – specifically undocumented migrants. They have also served to dehumanise targeted populations, and to perpetuate false impressions about these migrant communities among the South African public, at a time when better understanding is required. We are not saying that government should not be dealing with crime but we are saying that such operations should not be used to disguise efforts to target this already vulnerable population. We are suspicious of the motives behind sudden “anti-crime” operations in areas with a high concentration of primarily poor migrants of colour such as Hillbrow, Mayfair, the Central Methodist Church (which served as a haven for immigrants after the outbreak of xenophobia in 2008) and other parts of the Johannesburg CBD, taking place so soon after a violent xenophobic outbreak.

What we should be seeing is a coherent approach from government to sit down in genuine partnership with civil society, particularly those representing affected groups and map a way forward that will prevent future attacks and establish a workable reintegration plan.

These police operations have the unfortunate trend of creating a link between foreign nationals and crime, which is both misleading and inaccurate. It does nothing to address the core problems around xenophobia. The clumsy wording around undocumented migrants (illegal immigrants) is equally worrying. There are varied and compelling reasons why some people are undocumented. These include a collapsing asylum system, rampant corruption at key government departments, and the closure of refugee reception offices.

  • Legal interventions

We appeared in the South Gauteng High Court this morning in an urgent bid to gain access to those arrested during Friday’s raids across the city centre.

We were able to reach a settlement that stipulated that the Department of Home Affairs provide LHR with a comprehensive list of everyone arrested on Friday, full access to detainees being held at both the Johannesburg Central Police Station and Lindela Repatriation Centre and a halt to any deportation of those arrested for two weeks while Lawyers for Human Rights consults to determine detainees’ legal status.

Today’s urgent court case stemmed from the continued refusal by South African Police Service officials to allow lawyers access. An urgent high court order obtained on Friday night went unheeded, forcing us to return to court.

  • Coalition activities

We are calling for strong political leadership and an immediate stop to Operation Fiela-Reclaim until all of these issues have been resolved. As it stands we seem doomed to repeat the mistakes of 2008’s violence. The coalition has organised pickets outside the Central Police Station (formerly John Vorster Station) to protest against these raids and the detention of the numerous primarily foreign nationals of colour.

The coalition has been engaging various sections of government, including the Office of the Premier of Gauteng and the Office of the Mayor of Johannesburg. We welcome their outspoken nature in denouncing the xenophobic attacks, but are disappointed at their lack of action in the wake of the inappropriate security response that we have seen over the past week.

The coalition met with officials from the Gauteng Province yesterday to discuss these concerns around Operation Fiela-Reclaim. Premier David Makhura has given an undertaking to meet with the coalition again next week to explore these issues further and has committed to having the inter-ministerial task team on the xenophobic attacks be present at this meeting. We hope that this will set the tone for a more unified and cohesive response.

The coalition, which includes faith-based organisations, unions, NGOs and social movements, has resolved to take a stand against government-planned Africa Day celebrations, while foreign nationals continue to be targeted.  Instead, the coalition will organise alternative Africa Day celebrations to celebrate the spirit of unity with representatives of communities across Africa, and will continue to engage the relevant stakeholders through available channels such as the courts to ensure that due process is followed.

For interviews please contact:

Wayne Ncube (Lawyers for Human Rights), 071 850 3434 or via email: wayne@lhr.org.za
Marc Gbaffou (African Diaspora Forum), 083 514 7367 or via email: marcgbaffou@gmail.com

Stephen Faulkner (Nine Unions), 082 817 5455 or via email: steve.faulkner@samwu.org.za

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