The evictions that ended the month-long refugees’ protest on suburban pavements focus attention on the plight of such communities in South Africa, and the failure to take swift action to provide social justice. There is an urgent need to monitor public attitudes towards immigrants and to develop social cohesion programmes, write Profs Modimowabarwa Kanyane and Narnia Bohler-Muller, Dr Greg Houston and Lebohang Ndaba. Reactive solutions in the form of police interventions often do not resolve the situation but exacerbate it.
On 15 November, more than 500 refugees were evicted after a month-long, peaceful sit-in protest outside the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in an affluent Pretoria suburb. More than 180 refugees who had entered the UNHCR grounds were charged with trespassing.
The refugees were seeking protection from the refugee agency and appealing to be resettled in a safer country following an upsurge of violent xenophobic attacks in September.
They had been given an evacuation order on 14 November, instructing them to leave the area within three days. This was after affected communities in Brooklyn had sought legal recourse to the infringement to their right to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing. A large number of refugees then occupied the UNRHC grounds and offices, complicating an already complex situation as there had been no violence throughout this period of occupation.
Speaking to Eye Witness News last week, a spokesperson made it clear that the community did not feel as if their rights were being protected, or their lives valued. “A life of a refugee doesn’t matter here,” he said.
The issues of refugees, homeless people and other vulnerable communities cannot be ignored in a constitutional democracy. What is even more critical is the failure of the South African government to deal decisively with the infringement of the rights found in Chapter 2 of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other national, regional and international law protecting the rights of such communities.
Fearing xenophobic attacks
The concerns raised by the migrants are common to foreign individuals throughout the country. They fear attacks and want to be deported as they do not feel safe in a country that has a history of xenophobic attacks. Gordon writes that the safe integration and protection of refugees or immigrants in the country is undermined by widespread xenophobia.
The Police in Pretoria were expressly instructed not to use any form of force including shotguns, teargas or pepper spray as the eviction process began on the morning of 14 November 2019. Executing a similar court order in Cape Town earlier, the Police had used water cannons and arrested several of the refugees. When the Pretoria refugees refused to leave the UNHCR grounds and continued to resist the evictions on Friday, the Police became more forceful.
During the course of the peaceful protest and before the court order was granted, several engagements had taken place between the UNHCR, government stakeholders and the refugees’ representatives. One proposal was for the them to dismantle their camp and to be placed in an alternative shelter. However, the refugees opposed this because they felt that moving to a well-established shelter would not lead to a permanent solution to their concerns.
On Friday, the UN Refugee Agency indicated that it would assist the asylum seekers to get back on their feet after the evictions took place.
Foreign individuals’ conditions are traumatic
The inhumane conditions that the refugees endured during the protests, and their refusal to leave despite the eviction order, underscore the trauma experienced by this vulnerable population.
During several visits to the area in October and November 2019, HSRC researchers observed that the makeshift camps and tents offered no access to water and sanitation. Nor was it clear if the refugees had access to food and how they coped with Tshwane’s harsh weather. Shopping centres in the area closed access to bathrooms. The foreign migrants also encountered prejudice and rejection.
The refugees were mostly nationals of the DRC, Burundi, Rwanda and Ethiopia. They experienced the same harsh socioeconomic conditions as South Africans who were homeless or living in informal settlements. There were some significant interventions, especially by members of the surrounding community and churches. People provided blankets, tents and drums of water to the refugees in the camp. A feeding scheme was established, and an ambulance was on standby to react to any medical complications that could arise.
As the refugee camp grew, the Waterkloof Homeowners’ Association and Brooklyn and Eastern Areas Citizens’ Association sought a court order to direct the police to arrest and remove the refugees. The rights that the residents sought to protect were brought into sharp contrast with the rights of refugees.
Xenophobia has become a recurrent phenomenon in South Africa, and it has made many migrants, especially those from other African countries, feel unwelcome in the country. The recent events have highlighted the need to protect refugees’ rights to enhance social cohesion and promote a sense of belonging among immigrants.
Gordon writes that public animosity toward refugees in South Africa has motivated anti-immigrant riots, violence and prejudice, setting back African hopes of citizenship and wellbeing, and the dream of the African renaissance where the main objectives – unity and integration – are constantly being undermined.
There is an urgent need to monitor public attitudes towards immigrants, as well as to develop social cohesion programmes that promote the integration of refugees into South African society. Reactive responses in the form of court orders and police action will not provide a permanent solution.
News24 reports the cases against the refugees were postponed in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court on Monday, 18 November. Several other refugees are being accommodated at the Lindela Repatriation Centre pending a verification process by the Department of Home Affairs.