A series of airport deportations by South African and Nigerian authorities has sparked a growing diplomatic row between the two African nations.
Last week, South Africa deported 125 Nigerians arriving to Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport on an Arik Air Ltd. flight from Nigeria. Health authorities there said those passengers carried fraudulent yellow fever cards, Nigeria's government has said.
Since those deportations, authorities at Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Nigeria have deported at least 84 South Africans over similar claims about their vaccination cards, two government officials who requested anonymity said Wednesday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak about the issue.
Yellow fever vaccination cards, though required throughout much of Africa, often serve as a means for officials to extort bribes from travelers who forget their cards. In Nigeria, health authorities often target foreigners coming in for work at foreign oil firms in the nation's crude-rich southern delta. Yellow fever cards also remain easy to purchase, with hawkers selling properly stamped cards outside of Lagos' international airport for the equivalent of $5.
Nigeria Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru, speaking at the National Assembly on Tuesday, said the deportations represented something more than a vaccination concern. Ashiru said it represented the ongoing "xenophobia" faced by Nigerian immigrants living in South Africa who face rampaging police who arrest them without cause.
In South Africa, many there blame Nigerian immigrants for contributing to the nation's high crime rate.
"When you deport two Nigerians from your country on flimsy excuses, there will be appropriate reaction. It will not be retaliation but you will know that we are reciprocating one way or the other," Ashiru said. "South African immigration authorities or officials do not have a monopoly of deporting travelers."
Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for South Africa's Foreign Ministry, said his country planned to issue a statement Wednesday.
Visa requirements remain strict between the two countries. Diplomatically, the two nations also hold differing views, including Nigeria supporting Libya's rebels during the nation's recent civil war. Nigeria also joined international forces calling for the ouster of Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo in 2010, while South Africa largely remained quiet.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.