This operation, known as Operation Fiela, has seen the – amongst similar raids - the arrest of 235 illegal immigrants who took shelter at the Central Methodist Church, a renowned shelter for refugees in downtown Johannesburg, on 9 May.
“Large sections of police have been unleashed on people,” Steve Faulkner, of the Coalition of Movements Against Xenophobia, told reporters. “It was a military operation in the middle of the night ... People were herded together and taken to the police station.”
But, said Right to Know, a campaign group, the mass arrests are nothing more than “state-funded xenophobia”.
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“The raids were a heavy-handed response that have seen families being separated and led to various human rights abuses,” said spokesperson Murray Hunter.
The government has denied that Operation Fiela is targeting foreign nationals. “We would like to categorically and emphatically state that these claims are far from the truth,” spokesperson Phumla Williams said in a statement.
“This is an operation aimed at making our country safer to enable all people who live in our country to enjoy their freedoms in an environment that is free from crime,” added Williams
President Jacob Zuma has added his voice to the situation stating categorically that the government will not tolerate illegal immigrants but speaking to the National Council of Provinces, Zuma made a clear distinction between immigrants who brought skills and started businesses and those here illegally.
While he said South Africa had a duty to protect refugees and asylum seekers, he also emphasised that immigrants must be properly documented.
“We wish to emphasise that while working to create a welcoming atmosphere for foreign nationals, government will also not tolerate illegal immigrants,” said president Zuma also told MPs ‘Operation Fiela-Reclaim’, launched early in May in the wake of the recent wave of attacks on immigrants, was an anti-crime and clean-up operation.
“The operation [Operation Fiela] is aimed at ensuring that no area in the country remains in the control of crime syndicates and drug dealers.”
But the operation, which saw the raid of the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg and attempted deportation of people arrested in the raid, has come under sharp criticism from NGOs, which say government is being xenophobic.
Concerns that the police and military operation is being used to arrest and deport immigrants, without giving them time to consult lawyers have been dismissed by Cabinet saying ‘Operation Fiela-Reclaim’ is not targeted at foreigners.
The People’s Coalition Against Xenophobia has held two protests outside the Johannesburg Central Police Station to oppose the arrests and detention of foreign migrants.
“To equate crime to the presence of undocumented people in our society is not tackling xenophobia, it’s legitimising xenophobia,” Stephen Faulkner said. “It is saying to the general public, we have to tackle xenophobia by getting rid of illegal immigrants.”
But , claims the police's Katlego Mogale, “It [Operation Fiela] is not limited to the church, its several places inside the CBD [Johannesburg and have spread to Port Elizabeth, Durban and Cape Town too]. It’s a stop and search, and crime prevention operation we’re embarking on within the CBD. There are several places identified where the operation is taking place.”
Source: Reuters AFP