Children behind bars: detained teenage migrants suffer in SA

“Sometimes I feel very angry or I cry when I think about my past experiences,” said *Dakari, a young Zimbabwean who now lives in South Africa. “There are times when I dream about being in jail, being beaten by the police.”

A South African child speaks up behind bars.
A South African child speaks up behind bars.

Although he is only 17, Dakari has been exposed to the harsh conditions of being an undocumented foreigner in his country’s southern neighbour. Since his arrival three years ago, he has been detained twice and subjected to inhuman treatment by South African authorities.

Having lost all members of his immediate family through various mishaps during the past decade, illegally crossing the Limpopo River in pursuit of a better life seemed the only solution for Dakari. He did that in 2009, at only 14 years of age. Friends had told him that there were great opportunities in South Africa.

On arrival, he worked in a farm in the northern province of Limpopo, but exploitation by his employer hounded him onto the streets, from where he was nabbed by soldiers because he did not have any travel documents.

He was detained with 300 other predominantly Zimbabwean adults and children at the Soutpansberg Military base some 5km from the border. Then 15, he was kept in the camp for two months, ostensibly because there was no transport available for his deportation and that of other migrants. Conditions kept getting worse, as he was at the mercy of elderly inmates, some of them outright criminals.

“The building was made from iron sheets and we only received one meal a day, just bread, sometimes with soup. Since we were mixed with thugs and other adults, they would take the soup from us. It was very difficult for the children to find a place to sleep. There was nothing to do in the detention centre: no toys, balls or place to play.”

A severe asthma attack caused Dakarai’s release to a hospital. He was out after receiving treatment, but with nowhere to go and no friends to come to his aid. He lived on the streets for two years, before he was arrested again, this time by the police. He told them he was 17, but they refused to believe him.

Back in prison and without any money to appease the other prisoners, Dakarai was assaulted by older detainees, his head forced into a toilet. His request for asthma medication fell on deaf ears, resulting in his condition worsening.

According to Jeroen Van Hove, international Coordinator of the Global Campaign to End Immigration Detention of Children, Dakarai’s experience is a typical example of the problems that can arise when authorities do not consider and fulfil the needs and rights of children. Because of proximity and greater migration numbers, Zimbabwean children are the most affected in South Africa.

Started at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year and sponsored by the Princess Diana Memorial Fund, the campaign is asking governments to stop detaining children and their families. At least 75 national, regional and international organisations are already supporting the campaign. They include the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), the Fahamu Refugee Programme and Save the Children Australia. Van Hove believes this is a worthy cause.

“Children do not belong in detention and there are alternatives. The campaign was founded by the International Detention Coalition but is in fact a broader alliance,” he said in Johannesburg recently, at the launch of the 2012 Detention Report, an annual report compiled by local Campaign member, Lawyers for Human Rights. South Africa, despite having legislation that supports human and migrants’ rights, still lags behind in terms of their implementation, with authorities employing a lackadaisical approach to following their own laws.

“We have seen worse in this country. Child detainees complain that they are badly treated by the authorities, get bad food or fail to get it all. Living with adult detainees, they are badly treated and fail to sleep because of fleas in the blankets.”

Having arrived in South Africa on September 17, Van Hove sought government permission to visit the Lindela Repatriation Centre and assisted in campaign activities that included a video recording session by a group of 20 children trained in media monitoring by Media Monitoring Africa. The children got actively involved by recording their own video messages for the Campaign appeal, “Speak up for children behind bars”. Their voices will join the ones of other children from Greece and Australia who have already spoken up against child detention.

LHR, the only civil rights organization that has expressed concern with continuing arrests and ill-treatment of migrants, including asylum seekers, is currently trying to intervene in the cases of six minors, five of them Zimbabweans, recently detained at the Musina Police Station in Limpopo since February.

Although official figures are not available, it has been reported that between October and December 2011, 86 children between the ages of 2-17 years were detained and deported to Zimbabwe, which receives the highest number of children who are deported from South Africa.

The campaign calls on the Government of South Africa to stop detaining children – not only in law, but also in practice, as well as to stop deporting minors.

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