PICS, VIDEO: Chaos as police forcibly remove refugees from Pretoria UNHCR

Police forcibly remove refugees from the premises of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Pretoria, November 15, 2019. Picture: Jacques Nelles.

Hundreds of refugees have been removed from the premises and thrown into buses and canters en route to an unknown destination.

Police on Friday moved into the premises of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Pretoria, forcibly removing refugees who had stormed the building.

Following a tense stand-off on Thursday, members of the police tactical task team returned to the UNHCR in riot gear on Friday.

Hundreds of refugees have since been removed from the premises and thrown into buses and canters en route to a destination unknown at this point.

Pretoria News reports there is “confusion” as to where they are being taken. It is believed that some are being taken to the Brooklyn police station and the Pretoria Showgrounds.

Some of the refugees showed defiance, while others willingly got into the transport offered.

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In one picture taken by The Citizen photographer Jacques Nelles, a young child can be seen crying as he is taken away by a police officer.

The police were met with violent resistance as they arrived in numbers and slowly moved through the property, with some carrying shields while the arresting officers were behind them.

Many refugees resisted arrest and fought back, bashing against the police shields and throwing rocks, cans of food, water buckets and other items at the officers. Others sat in a group and refused to move or be removed.

The police used force to detain the refugees but no rubber bullets, stun grenades or tear gas were used during the operation.

At least four officers were injured after being struck with rocks.

Police spokesperson Brigadier Mathapelo Peters confirmed the injuries, saying they were treated by paramedics at the scene.

Some of the refugees were also injured during the clashes.

Dozens of women and crying children pleaded with police to leave them alone. They questioned their authority to effect arrests, accusing them of being xenophobic.

The operation, which lasted about an hour, ended as the last group of refugees handed themselves over.

Men were loaded into police trucks and taken to Brooklyn police station to be processed. Once Brooklyn is full, arrested refugees will be transported to other police stations in Pretoria.

Peters said women with children would be handed over to the social development department and taken to places of safety.

“What we have tried to do is to keep them with their mothers, not to separate them from their mothers, but those women who don’t have children were arrested alongside the men.”

Peters said immigration officials would also be conducting a verification process to ascertain the status of the refugees who were arrested inside the UN compound.

“I think it [the operation] went quite well although we did not anticipate the kind of violent resistance that we were met with, but I think we handled the situation very well.”

Numerous people have been arrested, according to Pretoria News.

Waterkloof Street is barricaded and not currently accessible to motorists, with a heavy police presence as well as emergency medical personnel and members of the fire brigade present.

Government has released a statement urging the refugees to adhere to a high court order that they must vacate the premises within three days.

“The protesters are prohibited from contravening the by-laws of the City of Tshwane and the laws of South Africa. The government urges the protesters to abide by the decision of the High Court,” the statement read.

On Thursday, the UNHCR laid trespassing charges against refugees who moved onto the organisation’s premises on Wednesday.

However, despite the trespassing charge being opened, police were initially unable to access the UNHCR premises due to its sovereignty. The premises is international territory, known as extraterritoriality, which means that local law does not apply.

They were granted clearance to enter on Friday.

The refugees resisted their intended removal on Thursday, with some heard stating that the police can only “remove them in coffins”.

Some continued to move their belongings onto the UNHCR premises.

Following efforts of police to remove refugees from along the side of the road at UNHCR, some of the refugees jumped the fence.

It has been estimated that there were 620 refugees at the Pretoria offices.

The Waterkloof Homeowners’ Association and Brooklyn and Eastern Areas Citizens’ Association sought a court order earlier this week directing the refugees to leave the area or for police, the City of Tshwane and department of home affairs to intervene and apply the law.

They argued that the refugees, who were the first respondents in the application, were in contravention of municipal bylaws and other applicable laws. Following long-winded arguments and disagreements on the proposed orders, Judge Natvarlal Ranchod granted the order on Wednesday.

In a statement, the UNHCR called for a peaceful resolution of the protest in its Pretoria compound.

Spokesperson Helene Caux said: “The UNHCR is engaged in a dialogue with the protesters, urging them to avoid any act of violence, vacate the premises and contribute to finding viable solutions.”

(Compiled by Daniel Friedman. Pictures by Jacques Nelles)

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