On November 15, the South African police violently evicted about 700 refugees camping outside the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Pretoria. 183 were arrested and hundreds more were detained.
Following a wave of xenophobic attacks in September which left at least 10 dead and many injured, the refugees had been occupying the premises outside the UNHCR office since October 8. They were demanding that the agency either repatriate them to their home country or another country where they may be safe from xenophobic violence.
A similar occupation outside the UNHCR’s office in Cape Town was also violently dispersed by the police on October 30, after the landlord of the occupied premises secured a court order for eviction.
In Pretoria, the refugees were camping on public pavements outside the UN body’s office in the posh Brooklyn suburb. This seemingly irked the affluent residents of the area, with the Brooklyn and Eastern Areas Citizens’ Association and the Waterkloof Homeowners’ Association filing an urgent application in the Gauteng High Court. They complained that the refugees were violating municipal by-laws.
On November 13, the court ruled that the occupation was unlawful and gave the refugees three days time to vacate. Fearing forceful eviction, the refugees made their way inside the UNHCR the following day to demand protection. However, this only led to trespassing charges being pressed against them.
Police clad in riot-gear moved in on the refugees on November 15. News 24 reported that many of them “resisted arrest and fought back, bashing police shields and throwing rocks, cans of food, water buckets and other items at the officers. Others sat in a group and refused to move or be removed.” Women, tightly holding on to their weeping children, begged and pleaded with the police, only to be dragged away.
The eviction process lasted for over an hour, during the course of which the police used multiple rounds of water cannons and pepper spray. The next day, the police released a statement confirming that 182 men and one woman had been arrested and charged with trespassing, for which they will appear in court this week.
Al Jazeera reported that another “224 women, 169 children and seven men were temporarily detained at Lindela Repatriation Centre until the South African Department of Home Affairs can verify their immigration status and process them accordingly. There is no indication as to how long this process will take.”
The incident again sheds light on the plight of refugees in South Africa, who are facing constant threats, xenophobic attacks and police brutality.