Government bends lockdown rules to repatriate foreigners after riots at Lindela

Hundreds of illegal immigrants are to be sent home despite the coronavirus lockdown following protests at Lindela repatriation centre which houses them before deportation.
Hundreds of illegal immigrants are to be sent home despite the coronavirus lockdown following protests at Lindela repatriation centre which houses them before deportation.
Image: File/ Esa Alexander

The government was forced to bend lockdown regulations and open the border to allow foreign nationals awaiting deportation to be allowed to cross and return to their home countries.

This was revealed by home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi in an interview with the SABC on Thursday morning.

“I can report that at 4.30 this morning, 94 Basotho nationals were taken out of Lindela. They are en route to Maseru border post,” he said.

“This morning, the Zimbabwean embassy is arriving [at Lindela]. We have summoned them. We are going to discuss with them with the hope that before the end of the day or at most by the end of the week, we will also have sent the 570 Zimbabweans home.” 

The decision to send the immigrants home during the coronavirus lockdown comes after 37 of those detained at the centre, all believed to be from Lesotho, escaped at the weekend. 

Motsoaledi said prior to the escape, they had gone on a riot, demanding that they be deported. They had been at the centre since the repatriation processes stopped when the coronavirus lockdown was implemented in March.

“During that riot, the security guards, who are at loggerheads with their company, started taking photos, showing this so-called overcrowding. I say ‘so-called’ because Lindela has a capacity of 4,000 and at the moment of the riot, there were only 1,574 people there.”

He labelled the escape an "inside job". 

“On Sunday, the guards tipped off [the detainees] that ‘we are going to leave early, you can do what you want’. That is the information that we got. And indeed the guards left at 2pm, claiming  there was no contract with their employer that says they must leave later. That is what they are claiming, but it was the first time that they left work at 2pm.

“At 5pm, the people started climbing over the walls and escaping. It was not really a secret.”

Motsoaledi said security guards in the camera room witnessed the escape. “But because there were very few guards there, they were overpowered. The police were called in, but by that time 37 people had already left.”

The minister visited the centre on Wednesday to assess the situation. Following his departure, he said yet another riot had broken out.

“The [detainees] said they don’t want social distancing. They don’t want to be locked in the rooms. They want to mingle in the courtyards. That is when I immediately took a decision that we must do something about those nationals too,” he said.

“I went to report the matter to the command structure and we reached an agreement that we need to send the Basotho home,” he said.

There are other people from other countries at the centre, but he said home affairs had chosen to start with the Zimbabweans and Basothos as they constituted the largest number. Mozambicans will be next to be sent home. 

Meanwhile, the security guards who were meant to have kept guard on Sunday have  been suspended by the security company that employed them.

“We can’t deal with them because we haven’t employed them, but we will certainly deal with the company,” added Motsoaledi.  

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