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LHR condemns police raid on the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg
Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR)
January 31, 2008

http://www.lhr.org.za/documents/PressReleaseontheRaidsontheCentralMethodistChurchinJohannesburg.pdf

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) condemns the unlawful and heavy handed police raid on the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg on the 31st January 2008. The raid appeared to be directed at vulnerable homeless persons and persons seeking asylum and sanctuary at the Central Methodist Church.

Many of those arrested are asylum seekers from Zimbabwe who left their country due to ongoing political persecution, human rights violations and extreme poverty caused by the actions of Zimbabwe’s political regime.

A number of documented persons were arrested along with persons who had either received an appointment to lodge their asylum claims at the Department of Home Affairs or were in the process of lodging these claims. The problem however, was that Home Affairs failed to issue any documentation to these persons indicating their immigration status in the country. Any raid targeting illegal foreigners should be carried out in conjunction with the Department of Home Affairs, yet there was little evidence of a Home Affairs’ presence during this particular raid.

Foreign nationals who come to South Africa seeking refuge from persecution are entitled to apply to Home Affairs for temporary asylum seekers permits which enable them to remain in the country lawfully until their claim has been adjudicated and a decision is made regarding their refugee status. However, in reality most asylum seekers find it extremely difficult to make asylum applications due to the inaccessibility of the Department of Home Affairs refugee reception offices.

Currently, the Johannesburg Refugee Reception Office in Rosettenville remains closed for new applications since 2005 despite several High Court orders to re-open the office. All Johannesburg-based asylum seekers are compelled to go to the refugee office in Pretoria where they are forced to queue for weeks outside the office in hazardous conditions. In the circumstances it is impossible for asylum seekers to comply with the law to become documented.

Arrest and detention of bona fide asylum seekers is unlawful, and their deportation is specifically prohibited by SA law. In fact, the Refugees Act prohibits the deportation of asylum seekers to countries where they risk further insecurity and persecution.

The police raid itself appears to have been patently unlawful as no search warrant was produced at the Church during the course of the raid. Section 33(5) of the Immigration Act requires immigration officers to obtain a warrant to enter or search premises, or apprehend an illegal foreigner. A raid for all purposes may only be carried out with a warrant, with the permission of the person in control of the premises, or without a warrant if the immigration officer has reasonable grounds to believe that the delay caused in obtaining a warrant would defeat the object of the search and entry, which would certainly not have been the case in last night’s planned raid on the church.

The Act also stipulates that searches, with or without a warrant, must be carried out during the day, unless expressly authorised for execution at night. Regardless, searches must be conducted with ‘strict regard to decency and order’ which includes the right to the protection of dignity, freedom and security, and personal privacy.

This is not the first time the police have conducted unlawful raids targeting foreign nationals and asylum seekers; but the proportions of last night’s raid exceeded the illegal police action of previous occasions.

The disgraceful treatment by the police stands in stark contrast to the preamble of the Immigration Act which dictates that immigration policing be conducted in a way that will promote a human rights based culture.

Lawyers for Human Rights is also concerned about the treatment of children who we believe were among the group of people arrested and detained last night.  This is especially alarming as the Bill of Rights and the Children’s Act prohibits the detention of children, unless the arrest and detention is a measure of last resort, in which case the child has to be detained separately from adults and there is a duty on the state to locate and notify their parents or guardians immediately upon arrest.

In light of the above LHR demands that:

  • the people who were arrested be released immediately;
  • the police desist from carrying out similar future raids;
  • the Department Home Affairs immediately re-opens the Refugee Reception Office in Johannesburg to allow all asylum seekers access to the asylum process as they are obliged to do by law.

Lawyers for Human Rights will be providing legal assistance to persons arrested of adversely affected during the course of this raid.

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