The police have been condemned for the way they enforced a court order to remove people from the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), in Cape Town.
On Wednesday, police approached the Waldorf Arcade building to evict hundreds of refugees. They had been camped on the ground floor of the building for three weeks — demanding that the UN send them to another country because they said South Africa is unsafe.
In forcefully removing the refugees, police went as far as yanking a child from her mother’s arms.
Refugee group leader Papisse Sukami said the police action proved the South African state perpetuates the violence and threats experienced by migrants in the country. “We are no longer safe in South Africa. We’ve been living here for a long time. But now it’s like South Africans want to clean their country. That’s why we want the UN to move us out.”
The group of between 200 and 300 migrants are now being housed at Greenmarket Square Methodist Church, in the heart of Cape Town’s tourist centre.
The church’s peace and justice monitor, Reverend Annie Kirke, witnessed the police action and said the refugees are justified in their anger at South Africans. “We should be devastated by what we saw. We can’t sit back and say that was just the law being enforced. We saw children being ripped from their mothers, there was hysteria. Later we had to figure out how do we reunite mothers and children.”
But the South African Police said they believe they acted within the letter of the law. Its Western Cape spokesperson, Novela Potelwa, said: “We recognise and respect the rights of all human beings. And if anyone has found to have contravened that, people are free to open complaints. Or they can go to the Human Rights Commission or Independent Police Investigative Directorate.”
Some refugee and migrant rights groups believe people affected have been given false hope by protest leaders.
Patrick Matenga, a member of the Western Cape Refugee and Migrant forum said people were told the UNHCR was offering resettlement.
Matenga said people were promised they would be moved to countries like Canada, Australia, and Europe. “We heard that people were told that the UNHCR was taking people’s names for resettlement. The UNHCR knew nothing about that. So refugees were traumatised by the same people who were leading them. They were misled.”
The UNHCR in a statement said it was continuing to engage refugees and asylum seekers with the assistance of the South African government. “UNHCR has been engaging with the refugees and asylum-seekers since the onset of the protests, encouraging them to participate in constructive dialogue to address their grievances and find a peaceful resolution to the situation.”