A lack of legal safeguards is allowing South African police to regularly assault and extort illegal immigrants from neighboring Zimbabwe
Human Rights Watch also charged that Zimbabweans awaiting deportation from South Africa were often kept in uncovered holding cells, where they were fed irregularly and detained for more than the legal 30-day limit.
"It's not possible to say it's just a few bad apples. There really is a systemic problem. The primary problem is the (poor) enforcement of perfectly acceptable laws," said Norma Kriger, the lead author of the report.
The group's accusations were based on research and interviews with Zimbabweans in Limpopo, a South African province that is a key transit route for those seeking to flee Zimbabwe, which has experienced eight years of economic recession.
One illegal immigrant claimed that police let him go on four separate occasions after he agreed to pay a bribe, according to Kriger. "It's common practice for the police to ask for money or items, and if you can provide them with what they want you won't be arrested," Kriger said.
South African police, however, said the report had vastly overstated the problem, adding that the handful of isolated cases of alleged police abuse of undocumented aliens had been dealt with swiftly and decisively.
"These cases are the minority," said Superintendent Chris Wilken, spokesman for the Johannesburg police, who stressed that the police were not targetting Zimbabweans or any other nationality.
"Whatever crime is committed -- whether you are Zimbabwean, Mozambiquean, South African, etc -- the police will act against you," he said.
South Africa's home affairs department, which oversees immigration matters, also defended its record and denied that authorities were allowing some to bribe their way into Africa's economic powerhouse.
South Africa has attracted a flood of immigrants from Zimbabwe, whose economy has collapsed under the weight of hyperinflation, a crumbling currency and stagnant agricultural output.
These job seekers are often accused of helping to fuel crime in South Africa. The Zimbabwean community, which some number at up to three million, bristles at such suggestions and what it considers heavyhanded police oversight.
"What is of concern to us is the manner in which our flats are raided by the police in the middle of the night. The police are no longer hunting down criminals but are now targeting Zimbabweans...," the South African chapter of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said in a statement on Tuesday.
The MDC is the main opposition group to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's government.
South Africa: Zimbabwean Migrants Vulnerable to Abuse