AS thousands of Zimbabweans are deported from South Africa, hundreds of migrant children awaiting deportation are being held in appalling conditions in detention facilities near Johannesburg and Musina, despite calls from legal and medical human rights groups to improve conditions.
Immigration authorities say about 43 000 Zimbabweans were deported from South Africa in 2012.
Among the deportees were accompanied and unaccompanied minors. Up to 600 unaccompanied minors were sent back to Zimbabwe by South African authorities in 2012.
Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) of South Africa reported that between October and December 2011, 86 children aged between two and 17 were deported by the authorities.
LHR is presently representing five Zimbabwean boys detained at Musina Police Station and a Congolese teenager being held at the Lindela detention facility just outside Johannesburg.
The minors have been detained longer than the stipulated maximum 120 days prescribed by South Africa's Immigration Act and Immigration Regulations.
According to LHR executive director Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, the South African Children's Act prevents the detention of children for immigration purposes and states that they cannot be removed without a court order.
"Section 138 of the Children's Act prohibits the unlawful detention of children as well as their removal without a court order," said Ramjathan-Keogh. "The Children's Act is applicable to all children living within South African borders. It does not exclude children who have entered the country through irregular channels," Ramjathan-Keogh said.
LHR says in a report, Monitoring Detention and Immigration in South Africa, children are often held together with adults in overcrowded cells in contravention of immigration laws, further raising concerns about the safety and general well-being of children.
"Conditions at detention facilities, including at the Lindela Repatriation Centre, which shelters detained women and children, and especially detention facilities in the Musina area near the Zimbabwean border, also remain well below minimum standards," reads the report.
"Regarding detention facilities in the Musina area, children are often detained and deported with adults, even though this is against the law," the report says.
The report further claims detention cells at Lindela and Musina are in bad condition as some detainees interviewed by LHR complained of inadequate meals and sleeping in dirty cells with lice-infested blankets.
"These cells do not have the requisite capacity to hold the numbers of Zimbabweans who are arrested and the overcrowding in the cells is a serious concern.
"LHR continues to monitor these detentions in Musina and lobbies for improved conditions there," states the report.
However, the decrepit conditions of detention and the threat of deportation have not deterred Zimbabwean minors from illegally crossing the Limpopo River into South Africa without any form of documentation.
According to Professor Lesiba Matsaung of the United Dutch Reformed Church who runs two shelters for boys and girls and founder of Nancefield in Musina, up to 30 women and girls come to the shelter every week, while the boys' shelter has up to 50 males seeking refuge every week.
"All of them jumped the border illegally," said Matsaung. "Some of the females are as young as 13. When they arrive here, some tell us they were gang-raped at the border. Some are also raped here in Musina by people who lure them to secluded areas after promising to help them with shelter, jobs and food," Matsaung said.
Matsaung said the shelters provided by his church also offered counselling to rape victims, but added that older rape victims were reluctant to report violations partly because of fear that the perpetrators may seek revenge as well as the stigma associated with it.
"Most of them do not want us to open criminal cases with the police because of fear of victimisation by the perpetrators. But elderly women also avoid opening criminal cases to avoid going to court, which means exposing them to their families and partners," Matsaung said.
Although South Africa is a signatory to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which states that unaccompanied or accompanied migrant children must receive the necessary humanitarian assistance, Zimbabwe's undocumented minors hoping for a better life across the Limpopo risk being detained in inhospitable conditions and in some cases, enduring physical and verbal abuse from South African immigration authorities.