South Africa

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Migrants occupy UNHCR premises for Pretoria sit-in

Migrants occupy UNHCR premises for Pretoria sit-in
It is essential that South Africa effectively includes foreign migrant populations in its programming in the fight against Covid-19, says the writer. (Photo: Chanel Retief)

On the morning of Thursday 14 November 2019, a number of migrants entered the premises of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tshwane, moving a sit-in protest from outside its walls to within it.

We said let us leave this community place because the community says we disturb them,” said spokesman for protesting migrants Alex Mongo Nkoy to Daily Maverick on Thursday from inside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in the upscale residential Waterkloof Road in Pretoria.

So we left that community place to be safe inside here. Inside here is not [a] community place, inside here its UNHCR.”

The migrants moved their protest on to UNHCR property in the early hours of Thursday morning. This comes after the Pretoria High Court handed down an order the previous day, which gave more than 500 migrants three days to vacate and disperse from the area in front of the UNHCR office.

The order came after protesters had conducted a sit-in in front of the UNHCR building from 7 October 2019 as a plea to have the refugee agency relocate them outside South Africa.

Their [UNHCR] mandate is to protect refugees,” Mongo Nkoy said. “We know they are the ones behind that court order… they’re pretending to be small gods while we must be the big devils.”

Mongo Nkoy further claims that entry into the UNHCR premises is legal as several of the protesters entered the property when the gate was open. He says they then placed rocks in front of the gate’s sensor to prevent it from closing.

We didn’t jump at its premises. We didn’t jump the fence. We didn’t do that. We are educated people,” Mongo Nkoy said. “These are all lies.”

However, videos of people climbing over the walls of the UNHCR property are circulating in the media. At this, Mongo Nkoy states that the people who jumped the fence are in fact not refugees, but “people who tried to take chances”.

Be that as it may, a case of trespassing has been opened against the migrants on the property. Member of the mayoral committee for community safety and emergency services in Tshwane Karen Meyers confirmed that a trespassing charge had been passed against the protesters, but because the UNHCR is a sovereign building, for any authority to proceed with any action against the protesters, written permission from UNHCR officials is required.

First of all, this situation could have been dealt with very swiftly if all the role players came to the table, like Home Affairs and SAPS as we sat as a city from the start,” Meyers told Daily Maverick.

The UNHCR said it was working with the government to find peaceful resolutions, but wanted the migrants to co-operate.

UNHCR is engaged in a dialogue with the protesters urging them to avoid any act of violence, vacate the premises and contribute to finding solutions,” its statement read.

Written permission was received during the course of the day and deliberations among authorities continued into the late afternoon. Though a strong contingent of the SAPS and Tshwane Metro Police was present throughout the day, their presence began to dwindle by 5pm.

For the migrants left outside during the day, security guards at the UNHCR building eventually opened the gate and allowed them inside in the late afternoon.

We want to prevent the incident that happened in Cape Town — it must not happen here,” Mongo Nkoy said. “Because we know the police here is very brutal. They can come and shoot people [with] rubber bullets and whatever. So we prevent because we are refugees on the run from xenophobic attacks.” MC

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