Arrest, Detention and Deportation

A foreign national must have valid documentation to remain in South Africa legally. If you are not able to prove that you have a legal document to remain in South Africa, you may be arrested. Foreign nationals may also be arrested for committing a crime in South Africa.

ATTENTION! If you are arrested for reasons related to your documentation or because you are undocumented, we strongly recommend you contact a lawyer. See Legal Assistance for a list of UNHCR’s partner organizations to contact for help with this.

When can refugees and asylum-seekers be arrested and detained for documentation reasons?

In South Africa, police officers and immigration officers are allowed to ask you to show identity documentation. This must be proof of identity, which includes your name and photograph. You can only be detained if a police officer or immigration officer believes on ‘reasonable grounds’ that you do not have legal stay in South Africa.

As a refugee or asylum-seeker, which document should you carry with you?

If you hold refugee status, you should always carry your refugee status document (Section 24 permit), refugee identity document or a certified copy of it.

If you have an asylum-seeker, you should always carry your asylum-seeker visa (Section 22 permit) or a certified copy of it.

Where can refugees and asylum-seekers be detained for purposes of deportation?

You can only be detained at a place determined by the Director-General of Home Affairs. This includes some police stations, detention facilities and offices under the management of the Department of Home Affairs. Those awaiting deportation will usually be transferred to the Lindela Repatriation Centre in the Gauteng Province. Lindela Repatriation Centre is South Africa’s only immigration detention centre.

What are refugees and asylum-seekers' rights in detention?

Your rights in detention include the right:

  1. To be informed of the reasons for your detention and your rights in detention
  2. To be detained in conditions that are within minimum standards of dignity and human rights, which includes adequate accommodation, food, reading material and medical treatment
  3. To be able to choose and consult with legal practitioners of your choice, or to be assigned one at the state’s expense
  4. To be visited by your spouse or partner, next of kin, and chosen religious counselors or medical practitioners; and
  5. To be held separately from criminal suspects.

How can refugees and asylum-seekers access legal help in detention?

If you are arrested or taken into custody for purposes of detention, we strongly recommend you get legal assistance. You have the right, in detention, to be visited by spouses or partners, next of kin, and chosen religious counselors who might assist in finding legal assistance for you. If you cannot afford a lawyer, contact a non-profit organization listed on the Legal Assistance section. (Note: if you are arrested for a criminal matter, you may be able to request Legal Aid.)

Can you deported if you are an asylum-seeker or refugee?

Asylum-seekers and refugees may not be detained for the purposes of deportation under the Immigration Act as this could amount to non-refoulement (which is the principle that States cannot return people to countries where there is a reasonable risk of harm or death). This includes people who intend to apply for asylum.

The detention of children is not allowed – only if it is a ‘measure of last resort’. This is subject to certain safeguards.

ATTENTION! Asylum-seekers who have been finally rejected and have not challenged the final rejection are at risk of detention and deportation.

Where can refugees or asylum-seekers get help if you were arrested or charged with a crime?

Refugees and asylum-seekers have a right to free legal representation in criminal matters. You can approach Legal Aid South Africa for assistance in criminal matters.

If you are in court, you have the right to request legal representation, which will be available to you.

ATTENTION! If you are arrested for a crime, you must be brought before a court within 48 hours. You may request legal representation and interpretation at court.

See also pages on Registration, Documentation and Identity and Legal Assistance.