South Africa: Refugees camping out to demand resettlement evicted from UNHCR premises

On April 21, 2023, police served an eviction order to nearly 100 refugees and asylum seekers camping outside the UNHCR office in Pretoria, South Africa.
On April 21, 2023, police served an eviction order to nearly 100 refugees and asylum seekers camping outside the UNHCR office in Pretoria, South Africa. © Nigel Branken

On April 21, police carried out an eviction notice and removed around 100 refugees and asylum seekers who had been camping outside the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Pretoria, South Africa. The group had been staying at the camp for months to demand resettlement in a third country, citing concerns over their safety following a wave of xenophobic attacks in 2019.

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The police vehicles arrived at dawn outside the UNHCR offices in Pretoria, where refugees and asylum seekers had been camping for months. Signs hung on their tents read messages like: "We are refugees in South Africa, not criminals. Safety is our demand."

The police evicted the group from the premises. One of those evicted was Theresa, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team in this week's episode of The Observers.

Wave of xenophobic attacks in 2019

The eviction came more than three years after a wave of xenophobic attacks occurred in South Africa in September 2019. 

At least ten people were killed and foreign-owned businesses were looted and set on fire. In the aftermath, some people took refuge in front of UNHCR offices in Pretoria and Cape Town, demanding protection and resettlement.

In Pretoria, some of them were charged with trespassing or taken to Lindela Repatriation Centre, an infamous detention centre for foreigners. 

Theresa spent three years there:

In this centre, we never received soap and detergent, there was no electricity, no hot water, we were not allowed to go out... to go to the hospital. It was forbidden. There was a woman who died because of the lack of medicine.

In May 2022, refugees and asylum seekers were finally released from Lindela. Some of them, like Theresa, then returned to the front of the UNHCR premises, having nowhere else to go. They stayed there until they were evicted on April 21. 

Louise du Plessis, a lawyer from the NGO Lawyers for Human Rights, has been following the case: 

These people are extremely traumatized. I mean, there's there's some of them that have got serious mental health issues. They don't get attention. I don't think they see a lot of hope for themselves.

Hopes for resettlement unlikely to be realised

Following the camp eviction, 70 people went to a farm outside Pretoria, like Theresa, and another 18 were sent back to Lindela, according to UNHCR spokesperson Laura Padoan: 

Authorities will provide them with food, shelter, sanitation and medical facilities for the next six months. They will be able to come and go from Lindela at will, and for those who wish to reintegrate into the community or to return voluntarily to safe areas in their countries of origin, then UNHCR staff will provide advice and support on these options. 

Padoan told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that resettling the refugees in another country is not within the mandate of UNHCR.

Resettlement to another country is only available to a tiny fraction of the world’s most vulnerable refugees – less than one percent - and depends on states offering places. The campers in Pretoria are asking that we transport them to a refugee camp in another country in Southern Africa, but doing so would be outside of our mandate. It would be for the relevant governments to make decisions regarding entry clearance.