Cape Town – Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers staged a sit-in and occupation of the Cape Town offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), demanding to be taken out of the country.
Jean Pierre, a senior refugee rights activist at Women and Child Concern, said there has been growing anxiety from the refugee community since 2008, but the UNHRC was dragging its feet at addressing their concerns.
He said the UN body was failing its mandate to protect refugees. Pierre accused the government and political figures of instigating violence against foreigners, “while walking free without being asked questions”.
“The labour minster recently said they were going to ensure that there was no foreigners employed in South Africa. The ministers of police and small business said they would also make sure there was no foreigner that owned a spaza shop,” he added.
Pierre also accused President Cyril Ramaphosa of hypocrisy when he told officials and business leaders at the G7 summit that he was committed to quelling attacks on foreigners “whilst thousands are still suffering on the ground”.
UNHCR spokesperson Hélène Caux said: “We acknowledge the issues they (refugees) raised.
She said the UNHCR was working closely with the South African authorities to continue providing protection through the issuance of appropriate identity documentation, facilitating access to healthcare, education and employment opportunities.
Caux said South Africa was hosting almost 268 000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia.
Phumla Williams, acting GCIS director-general, said the government reiterated “that our country welcomes all people who are legally in the country and are contributing to its economic development”.
Williams said the government remained committed to building a society based on democratic values of social justice, human dignity, non-racialism, non-sexism and the advancement of human rights.
The Western Cape Refugee and Migrant Forum, which represents several migrant-related organisations, in a statement distanced itself from the “illegal” protest.
“We wish to clarify that resettlement is not the solution to the concerns raised by the sit-in outside UNHCR offices. Resettlement is only for refugees with specific protection needs and vulnerabilities, which is determined by UNHCR on a case-by-case basis only. The number of refugees who can be resettled from South Africa by the UNHCR is very small,” it said.
According to the forum, there were about 80 000 recognised refugees in South Africa.
“We have been informed by refugees and asylum seekers who were invited to the illegal sit-in that they were promised resettlement should they participate in this protest. This is simply not true and false expectations are being raised,” it said.