PLIGHT OF MIGRANTS
Mothers go one way, children another, during eviction of refugees outside UN offices in Pretoria
Activists are scrambling to shelter refugee families who are desperate to stay together and don’t want to go to the Lindela Repatriation Centre.
There was a heavy police presence – and a number of arrests – at the UN offices in Brooklyn on Friday morning as distraught parents grappled with the fate of their families.
They were forced to choose between going to the Lindela Repatriation Centre, as the high court has ordered, or go to jail.
The court ordered the City of Tshwane and the Department of Home Affairs to provide temporary accommodation for refugees who have been living outside UN offices because they fear xenophobic attacks. The initial group of 35 people camped out in 2019 and they were joined by more refugees in early 2022.
The South African Police Service arrived in Nyalas and water cannon, ready for any eventuality as refugees seemed determined to stay outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
They were accompanied by other security companies, the Department of Home Affairs, the Department of Social Development, Fidelity-ADT, Brooklyn CPF, City of Tshwane Waste Management, Gauteng Emergency Services and the City of Tshwane Fire Brigade.
However, by mid-morning the crowd had relented. Some parents handed over their children to social services and left by themselves for Lindela, while a large number of refugees opted to simply walk away.
Activists are worried about the group that wandered off, as they scramble to provide shelter for the families.
Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘I would rather die than go to Lindela’ – refugees speak out after high court sends them to repatriation centre
Pastor and co-founder of the Neighbours nonprofit Nigel Branken, who was on the scene from 4am, said: “We are pleading with churches to provide shelter for the refugees that have walked away voluntarily. We are currently in contact with the Tshwane Leadership Foundation and Lawyers for Human Rights, looking for a way to provide shelter for these families.”
We don’t know what we will do with them; for now we are just trying to get them away from the area so they don’t get arrested.
Multiple organisations were present to oversee the enforcement of the court order to evict more than 100 refugees that have been camping outside UN refugee offices since 2019 in fear of xenophobic attacks.
The order says the refugees must be placed at the Lindela Repatriation Centre – to the dismay of the refugees who say the place is unsanitary, has no water, is unsafe and is like a concentration camp.
‘Even snakes are in there’
A woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was rolling her belongings into a plastic sheet she used for shelter, said she would rather walk off than go to Lindela.
“Lindela is like a concentration camp. We have been there and the minister put us back here on the street, now they want us to go back. They treat us really bad there. There are criminals, there is no water, even snakes are in there. We have asked UNHCR so many times to take us even to a refugee camp around South Africa, Botswana, anything… they won’t help us,” she said.
She says she will go to a camp in Zimbabwe because it is safer than integrating into South Africa where she might face a violent xenophobic attack.
The refugees have recounted horror stories of attacks going back to the violence of 2008.
According to the UN: “Resettlement is not a right and is not available to everyone granted refugee status. Places are limited and Resettlement Countries choose how many refugees to resettle.
“Resettlement to a third country involves the selection and movement of a refugee from his/her country of asylum (South Africa) to another country that has agreed to admit him/her as a refugee and to permanently settle there.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Timeline of hatred and death – xenophobia and South Africa’s record of shame
“Resettlement is a limited solution available to refugees who meet very specific requirements. The criteria are defined by the Resettlement Country, specific protection needs and particular vulnerabilities. UNHCR monitors individual cases of refugees on an ongoing basis and determines those eligible for Resettlement Consideration,” the refugee agency’s guide reads.
Lawyers for Human Rights attorney Louise du Plessis echoed Branken’s sentiments and said they were contacting partner organisations in the Tshwane metropolitan area who could house refugees.
“The challenge is they have to move from here otherwise they will get arrested. Most couldn’t take all their belongings but the stuff they did take is heavy so we have called vehicles that can help with that. We don’t know what we will do with them; for now we are just trying to get them away from the area so they don’t get arrested,” said Du Plessis
Du Plessis said the police were efficient and tried to make the process easy. She estimated that 20 to 40 people walked away and the rest went to Lindela.
Police were unable to confirm the exact number of arrests at the time of publication. DM/MC