SA human rights groups call on government to stop stigmatisation of foreign nationals

Over the last few weeks, the South African government has deployed large numbers of police and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to conduct a series of raids in various parts of South Africa, most notably in the Johannesburg CBD. While government has claimed these raids are to address crime, in reality, this strategy targets foreign nationals living in the inner city, with the government implying that these individuals are criminals.

In April, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Migration initiated “Operation Fiela”, which means “sweep the dirt,” ostensibly to address crime. This operation, executed by the South African Police Services (SAPS) and the SANDF, has instead focused primarily on foreign nationals, and has so far included a raid on residents of the Central Methodist Church, which was previously a safe haven for poor migrants seeking refuge. Those arrested are to have their status verified by the Department of Home Affairs.

We echo the many human rights advocates who say that Operation Fiela, and similar actions by the state, are clear examples of institutionalised xenophobia. The name of this campaign alone is of concern, and allows for an interpretation that the government sees those who are most marginalised in our country – migrants and refugees, sex workers and others – as “dirt” that should be removed from society. Such designations exacerbate anti-foreigner sentiment, and are extremely incendiary and dangerous.

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) have confirmed that the outcome of these raids is not the combatting of crime, but mass arrests of both foreign migrants and South African nationals. Wayne Ncube, Head of Immigration Detention at LHR, says that where they have been given access to visit detained migrants, many have reported that their arrests were conducted in a violent manner, with some police referring to them as “kwerekwere” – a derogatory term used to describe African foreign nationals in particular.

We welcome the South Gauteng High Court’s affirmative ruling on Tuesday May 12, on LHR’s application to halt the deportation of arrested, undocumented migrants, which was meant to take place yesterday. LHR will now be able to consult with these migrants, who may include asylum seekers and refugees. While the halting of the deportation is a positive step, it is not enough. We are calling on government to immediately fully end Operation Fiela, and similar activities, which only serve to make foreign migrants more insecure in South Africa, and go against previous promises of government, in the face of xenophobic violence, to build social cohesion.

The arrests of hundreds of men and women through Operation Fiela have reportedly resulted in the loss or confiscation of property of foreign nationals, including the documentation that many migrants and refugees are holding to show that they are legally in South Africa. Families are being torn apart, as men and women are often separated from each other and their children; adults are being sent to the Johannesburg Central Police Station while children are taken, sometimes without their parents, to refugee camps. “We found a four-month-old baby at the Mayfair Refugee Camp, left there without his mother or father, surviving on the breast milk of a lactating mother also in the camp,” says Demelza Bush, Multimedia Associate at Sonke Gender Justice, “This type of treatment is immoral and cruel.”

These events raise urgent concerns about the use of the army in civilian matters. The army is not adequately trained to participate in policing operations. The experiences of many of our neighbouring countries tell us that the deployment of the army for non-military matters can be a slippery slope that can quickly erode democracy.

“Conflict, the army, and guns have a devastating effect on the lives and dignity of most refugees living in South Africa,” says Pierrette Kengela Disanka of Sonke Gender Justice who has worked on refugee rights for many years, “Many documented refugees may leave South Africa because the army forces are being sent to their homes, their shops, their churches, and their tendency is to intimidate or threaten this population.”

“When the government sends police inside of Parliament, or sends the army to uncover and arrest undocumented migrants, we should be worried,” says Sonke’s Executive Director, Dean Peacock, “Government is using harassment, intimidation and bullying against foreign migrants instead of protecting them against xenophobic violence. Will we next see the army being used to quell labour disputes or political mobilisations?”

The reality is that Operation Fiela is only deepening the stigmatisation of foreign nationals in South Africa, especially those from other African countries, and making it difficult for all foreign migrants to integrate into South African society, especially those who have been arrested in these raids.

We call on government to desist with these raids and arrests which infringe on the rights of foreign nationals living in South Africa, and in fact all South Africans, obstructing our rights to dignity, security of the person, freedom of movement, and freedom from harassment and discrimination on the basis of ethnic differences.

Those who have been detained in prisons are being denied their right to appear before the courts, and kept in inhumane conditions. By implying that foreign nationals are responsible for crime in South Africa, government is stigmatising foreign nationals, destabilising the already fragile relations between some South Africans and foreign nationals, and deepening xenophobia in South Africa.

We demand that instead of continuing with these violent and human rights infringing raids and arrests, the government should focus its efforts on providing quality education, creating jobs and getting people out of poverty. Current state-led raids which disproportionately target African foreign nationals and paint them as criminals, are simply an attempt to divert attention from the ongoing socio-economic problems that have not been caused by immigrants, and will certainly continue whether or not foreign migrants live in South Africa.

Statement by:

Sonke Gender Justice
Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR)
Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC)
Grassroot Soccer South Africa


  1. Marlise Richter
    Policy Development & Advocacy Specialist at Sonke Gender Justice
    021 423 7088
  2. Wayne Ncube
    Head of Immigration Detention at Lawyers for Human Rights
  3. Jenn Warren
    Communications Coordinator at Grassroot Soccer South Africa