Homeless: Sleeping outside, in silent protest

We first meet Patrick Naimana on a Tuesday evening at a soup kitchen outreach with staff from the Tswhane Leadership Foundation. We ask him whether we can meet with more of his colleagues for an interview.  He agrees to set up the meeting.

Home for Naimana and his colleagues is a car park on Prinsloo Street next to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices on Francis Baard Street (formerly Schoeman Street). This is the first stop for the soup kitchen van after it leaves the foundation's premises.

A man emerges from the shadows and comes to the van when we park. He says he will run and alert the others. The lilt of his voice makes me know that he is from Uganda. I can trace that accent anywhere. I learn his name is John.

John returns with five men. One of them, Mohammed, stands tall and distinguished. He softly requests for two soup bowls. We want to chat with him but he is hesitant to talk. He asks if we can return another time. He tells us to ask for Mohammed. He says he is from Somalia and has to rush back to his ailing brother. His brother, he says, is sick and is lying under a tree. He needs to take him food. He dashes off into the darkness.

Naimana interjects that the metro police beat up Mohammed's brother. He is too weak to walk but is getting better he says, but needs prayers. We promise to say a prayer for him.

We schedule an interview and exchange numbers with Naimana. He tells us to be in Pretoria at 6am before everyone leaves in search for the day's meal. We agree to have breakfast with them.

Breaking the news
On the Friday morning, when we arrive at the car park a little after 6am, we find that Naimana has spoken to his colleagues about us as promised.  We have carried breakfast to share with the group. We set up the picnic basket and put clothes on the grass which will serve as our mats. Breakfast is tea, coffee, a mix of vegetable and meat sandwiches, and apples.

Naimana breaks the news to us. He says there was a police operation the previous night and some men were captured and will be deported. John, the Ugandan, was among those captured.

He adds that Mohammed's brother died on Wednesday night, just after our first visit with the soup kitchen outreach. Mohammed cannot take part in the group session. We offer him tea and he goes away. We sit in silence. We finally learn his brother's name: Abdi Rashid.

Nasfim Kapley, a migrant from Ethiopia breaks the silence. He blames the metro police for indiscriminate abuse.  

"They come here. It's very cold at nights and the only blanket you have, they come and take it to be burned or put in their car," he says.

He adds that sometimes when the police bloodily assault the migrants, they do not take them to the police station.

Police-inflicted injuries
"Sometimes they hit you, hit you and when they see you are bleeding they can't take you to the police station. They release you because they know they already hurt you. Many times we get injuries from the metro police and the normal police," he says.

Kapley blames the metro police for  the death of Rashid's, who was dragged away from a fire they had lit to keep warm. He slowly pieces for us the brutal ordeal of Rashid's last days.

"This guy [Rashid] here who died. They took him straight from the fire [place]. He was there by the fire sitting at night they took him," he says.

Kapley says that Rashid was mentally ill but the police did not pick up on that when they arrested him.

"He was a little bit talkative but they did not know this guy was sick in the mind. They grabbed him and start[ed] hitting him," he says.

He says that Rashid was taken to Pretoria North Police Station and tortured.

"They took him to Pretoria North and there sprayed him in the eyes. That thing affected him because one eye was completely closed. They put him in a cell where there is nothing else," Kapley alleges.

Alex, who only prefers to use his first name and is from Tunisia, says that Rashid returned from police custody very ill.

"He came back from jail after five days. He could not do anything. Me, I called the others and I said, please you must do something for this guy, he's going to pass away," he says.

Getting on the streets
Fearing for Rashid's deteriorating health, Alex called for an ambulance.

"On the second day I called the ambulance, and the ambulance came and they took him to hospital, and now three weeks later the guy is dead," he says.

Kapley adds that Rashid was dismissed earlier from the hospital. He says a humanitarian organisation gave him a house but it was empty and he had to climb many flights of stairs to get to the apartment.

Rashid, he says, was limping, and therefore decided to rejoin his colleagues in the car park, where he died two days later.

Naimana says that he and a few colleagues, including Rashid, first came to the streets after being in a shelter for three months.

He alleges that in 2009, a year after the xenophobic attacks, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the metro police, removed them from a camp in Pretoria North and resettled them in temporary shelters.

"After three months, they [UNHCR] evicted us, so some of us went to the streets. I ended up coming here at the UNHCR building until my papers expired," he says.

Naimana claims he lost his papers during a police raid. He says he got an affidavit and when he went to home affairs, he was told that he needed to pay a fine for late submission. He has not renewed his papers because he does not have the money to pay for the fine. Without papers, Naimana says, he cannot get a job to earn a living.

Petrol bomb explosion
Sherif is from Somalia and has been living on the streets for seven years. He was recently hurt during a petrol bomb explosion. His right foot is septic from the burns.

"I am facing so much challenges here especially that one of assault. A while ago I was sleeping outside there and there was some kind of demonstration. I don't know people were running and they poured petrol and set them alight. I was burnt. I have bruises all over my body from the fire," he says.

He adds that he is an old man and cannot move anywhere to look for anything and no one can help him.

"I don't even have cloth, nowhere to sleep, nothing and nobody cares about me. There is nobody for me here not even a relative to help. I am now getting weak and old," his voice fades into a whisper.

Naimana says that the UNHCR should represent them in terms of protection and health among other needs.

"The main issue is protection because UN[HCR] is saying that they don't provide protection. It's government's responsibility, the police and whatever … the main issue here is protection because you can see even the guy [Rashid] who died, the police came and picked him up and then beat him up, and the UN is saying it's the police, the government and whatever. What kind of protection is that?" he asks agitatedly.

Sleep outside the UNHCR building
Naimana says that they choose to sleep outside the UNHCR building in protest.

"We choose to stay here because they [UNHCR] are our embassy. Because once you are a refugee, you are not allowed to go to your embassy. So these people are supposed to … they become our embassy, you understand, are you with me?" he asks.

However, Sergio Calle-Noreña, UNHCR deputy regional representative, disagrees with the protest.

"If they protest in front of this office we can't do much," he says. "Sleeping in these areas is illegal and exposes them to additional security risks."

Calle-Noreña says the "protesters" simply want to live off UNHCR expenses. He clarifies that when the UNHCR removed asylum seekers from the camps, they were given shelter and received opportunities for training.  

He clarifies that the assistance is always temporary, in most cases three months, and they can only provide housing in critical cases.

Resettlement issue
He says that some recipients of the trainings have gone on to succeed. He rubbishes the group and says that they are only interested in resettlement.

"Naimana has come for resettlement. He negligently let his documentation expire and we cannot pay fines due to negligence," he says.

Calle-Noreña says some asylum seekers cannot think beyond resettlement [to the developed world] and will not do anything to sustain themselves.

"Some people are locked in the resettlement pipeline. They lock themselves mentally and there is nothing they can do."

In response to the police brutality, he says that the UNHCR has trained police officers on how to handle refugees and not to beat them, however, he quickly adds, that if the refugees place themselves in a situation of illegality then the police have the authority to exert force.

Following up on Abi Rashid's case
Calle-Noreña says the UNHCR is aware of Abdi Rashid's case and have asked Lawyers for Human Rights to get the full autopsy report and follow up the case with the relevant authorities.

Zweli Mnisi, spokesperson to the South African minister of police, said the ministry did not condone police violence or profiling during operations.

"We have trained our police officers to be apolitical and to not profile suspects during arrests. We do not condone any police brutality," he said.

In relation to cases of theft and fears of the migrants to report cases to the police, Zweli appealed to them to report relevant cases.

"The police have a role to play and we need to meet them half way," he said. "The Independent Complaints Directorate investigates police brutality and internal disciplinary actions are then taken against police officers found guilty of breaking the law."

He adds that if the migrants are sleeping on private property, it is a violation of the law and they need to move away from the property.

The police are encouraged to mount operations within the premises of the law. Zweli emphasised that the police are empowered to stop anyone at any time.

Jackee Budesta Batanda is a writing fellow at the African Center for Migration and Society. Follow her on Twitter on @jackeebatanda.

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