South African police have evicted more than 100 asylum seekers camping for over three years outside the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Pretoria.
The asylum seekers began living in makeshift tents pitched outside the UNHCR offices as they asked to be relocated to other countries after a spate of xenophobic violence in 2019.
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Pretoria municipality last week secured a high court order to remove them, and police did so on Friday.
The court documents said the refugees would be evicted and taken to the Lindela Repatriation Centre, a temporary holding centre for undocumented migrants who are earmarked for deportation to their countries of origin.
Scores of police officers led by the sheriff’s department carried out the eviction with the aid of immigration and other officers.
Using a megaphone, state attorney Kobus Meijer warned the people living in the encampment that they would be arrested and detained if they resisted removal.
Some families vacated voluntarily while others protested.
“It’s better for me to die here” because “I am not going in Lindela”, a woman from the the Democratic Republic of the Congo shouted.
UNHCR spokeswoman Laura Padoan told the AFP news agency that “they are asking that we transport them to a refugee camp in another country, but this is outside of our mandate.”
The UNHCR urged the authorities carrying out the evictions to do so “peacefully and that families are treated humanely, with dignity and respect”, Padoan said.
South Africa has some of the world’s most progressive asylum policies, allowing foreigners to apply for refugee status and work. But human rights groups say the application system is flawed and backlogged, leaving many asylum seekers stuck in limbo for years.
As the continent’s most industrialised economy, South Africa is also a magnet for economic migrants.
The situation has stoked resentment among jobless South Africans and fuelled sporadic outbursts of xenophobic violence. The violence has been led by right-wing parties and anti-migration militia like Operation Dudula.