Johannesburg — By the age of 16, Auguy Bingi* had lost a father and a brother to the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), so he did not argue when his mother sent him to join his uncle in Malawi.
"[A rebel group] killed my father and took my older brother to fight for them," he said. "I didn't want to be a soldier."
Bingi spent 10 months at Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi before learning that his uncle had moved to Durban, South Africa. After finally establishing contact, he received money from his uncle and instructions to find a truck heading south. By November 2011, Bingi had reached Musina, near South Africa's border with Zimbabwe, and went to the Department of Home Affairs's Refugee Reception Office to apply for asylum.
"They said they couldn't give me an asylum-seeker permit because I was under 18," said Bingi. "I went back the next day and told them I was 26 and they gave me some papers."
Bingi spent three months with his uncle in Durban before returning to Musina to renew his permit. After a long wait at the Refugee Reception Office, he was escorted to the Musina Police Station.
"I said, 'I'm not a criminal', but they put me in a cell," he told IRIN. After a couple of days, he was transferred to another police station, and then to Lindela Repatriation Centre outside Johannesburg, the country's largest immigration detention facility, where he spent the next four months.
South African law prohibits the detention of children for immigration purposes, but according to Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), a local NGO that conducts regular visits to Lindela and other immigration detention centres around the country, a significant and increasing number of children, as well as asylum seekers and refugees, are being detained and deported.
Lindela is a prison. If you're young or older, it's the same; you're a foreigner
Limited access to immigration detention facilities makes it impossible to determine the precise number, but in its 2012 Detention Report, released on 19 September, LHR notes that it achieved the release of four minors between February 2011 and March 2012, and Bingi said he met at least 10 others during his time in Lindela.
LHR points to the lack of a screening process to identify minors among new detainees. "Children are often only identified if an independent monitor visits the detention centre and puts pressure on the detention facility to release them," the report says.
LHR also notes that Lindela, run by a private company, lacks of a procedure to allow detainees to communicate with Home Affairs officials or exercise their legal right to apply for asylum. Bingi says he informed staff at Lindela of his age and asked to speak to Home Affairs officials but was refused. And because his mobile phone had been confiscated, Bingi could not tell his family where he was.
Child rights violation
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which South Africa has signed and ratified, holds that children shall only be detained as "a measure of last resort" and that these children "shall be separated from adults."
But Bingi, after being issued a dirty, lice-ridden blanket, was put in a cell with around 30 adult men.
"Lots of people there were sick; many of them had mental problems," he recalled. "I couldn't close my eyes at night."
Lining up for meals was another ordeal, with older men shoving him aside and security guards making liberal use of tear gas to maintain order.
"Lindela is a prison. If you're young or older, it's the same; you're a foreigner," said Bingi, who narrowly escaped being deported back to the DRC after one of LHR's lawyers managed to secure his release to a local children's shelter.
"No child should be locked up. These children and families do not pose any threat to the community," said Jeroen Van Hove of the International Detention Coalition (IDC), which launched a global campaign to end child immigration detention in March and is putting the spotlight on South Africa during the month of September.
The IDC is calling on states to find alternatives to detaining migrant children, such as placing them in residential shelters while their immigration status is determined. "Many of these children are unaccompanied minors who have lost their parents or are already traumatized and just want safety," pointed out Van Hove.
Ferayi Masimo, Bingi's counsellor at the children's shelter, said Bingi and two other boys who came from Lindela were traumatized by their experiences there. "They have anger issues because they were transferred to an institution against their will, and now they've been transferred to another place where they have no independence," Masimo said.
Bingi is eager to be reunited with his uncle in Durban but has to wait for his case to be assessed by a social worker and for Home Affairs to issue him another asylum-seeker permit. In the meantime, he is rarely allowed out of the shelter. "They say the police could arrest me," he said. "Since May, I haven't been outside except to go to church."
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations