World / Social Issues

Hundreds of asylum-seekers storm U.N. refugee office in Pretoria, demanding protection

AFP-JIJI

Hundreds of asylum-seekers who have staged a sit-in protest outside the UN refugee agency in Pretoria for five weeks on Thursday barged into the premises, the agency said.

Several hundreds scaled the perimeter wall of the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in an upmarket suburb of the capital, an AFP photographer said.

They erected tents and spread their belongings around the carpark.

The UNHCR said around 150 foreign nationals “have forced their way into the compound this morning” and that its staff were “safely evacuated out of the building.

“The protesters say they are seeking protection and want UNHCR to relocate them to a safer country,” the agency said a statement.

The foreigners have staged the protest since Oct. 8, sleeping under camping tents on pavements in front of the refugee agency and the Turkish Embassy next door.

On Wednesday the Pretoria High Court issued an order giving the protesters three days to vacate, but they decided to move into the UNHCR premises.

Residents from the Brooklyn suburb sought the eviction complaining that the protesters’ occupation of sidewalks was illegal and caused a nuisance.

It ordered the protesters to not erect shelters, defecate, urinate or undress on the street.

Using a loudhailer, the court’s sheriff on Thursday read out the order to them.

Aline Bukuru, leader of the group from Democratic Republic of Congo, said: “We have come here because we need protection from the UNHCR.

“We have no choice because we have been the targets of xenophobic attacks,” she added. “We have been warned that if we go home we will be killed.”

At least 10 South Africans and two foreigners were killed in September after mobs descended on foreign-owned stores in poor districts in and around Johannesburg.

Bukuru warned that “if the police try to move us, they must bring coffins.

UNHCR said it was talking to the protesters “urging them to avoid any act of violence, vacate the premises and contribute to finding viable solutions.

Late last month police in Cape Town arrested and later freed around 100 foreign nationals who had occupied the UNHCR offices in the coastal city.

More than 200 asylum seekers are now housed at a Methodist church in the city.