Policing Migration: Immigration Enforcement and Human Rights in South Africa

This paper examines reported incidents of human rights abuses and violence directed towards foreigners where government employees have been the perpetrators. We discuss both direct human rights abuses and incidents of violence (with examples drawn from policing exercises such as “Operation Crackdown” and from the detention of undocumented migrants) and institutional violence (such as migration policy development and other executive actions promoting or at least failing to prevent victimization of foreigners). In many of the reported incidents, law enforcement officials have been the direct perpetrators of the human rights violations. The South African government is legally responsible for ensuring adherence to national and international human rights standards and the Constitution. We argue that the South African government needs to ensure that laws are adhered to but also to create a clear framework to guide and legally underpin police and immigration conduct to prevent human rights abuses. This paper has focused on instances and patterns of abuse of foreigners in policing and detention. What protection is there against violence inflicted on foreigners? Foreigners may be particularly ignorant of the limitations prescribed by law on the conduct of police officers. Many others refrain from taking legal action, either because they cannot afford legal assistance or because they fear victimization by the police. Other causes are structural or institutional. For instance, the police may often be resistant to assist foreigners but the police also may lack the competence to speak a language that would allow them to do so.