“Our problem is South Africa,” says Theresa Walu, 41. But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “doesn’t want to help us with anything, that is the big problem”.
Walu, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is part of a group of about 70 refugees and asylum seekers from the DRC and Burundi who has been camping outside the UNHCR offices in Pretoria for the past month. But residents and the landlord of the offices have secured an eviction order and UNHCR staff have consulted the group about where they will be moved to on Wednesday 22 June.
The group is part of a bigger one that staged a protest outside the UNHCR offices in 2019, demanding to be resettled to other countries because they claimed they were victims of xenophobic violence. The police eventually removed this group forcibly from the pavement outside the offices.
“Life is difficult. Yesterday we were people, but today look at us,” says Walu, who has been camping with two of her children. She says the women campers often have to rely on the goodwill of passers-by for food and water. “We are suffering. Life is very hard here.”
The group has erected makeshift shelters using sheets of plastic. Their presence in Waterkloof Road, Brooklyn, is in stark contrast to the upmarket houses in the area. Having been forcibly removed in 2019, they have returned more determined in their call to be resettled.
The 2019 protest also took place in Cape Town, where refugees and asylum seekers first camped outside the UNHCR offices there before occupying the Central Methodist Church in the city centre. Under the leadership of Congolese refugee Jean-Pierre “JP” Balous, the refugees resisted leaving the church until the police also forcibly removed them from here and relocated them to another site.
Balous, whose wife Aline Bukuru led the group in Pretoria at the time, was later arrested on a number of charges, including assaulting police officers during one of her husband’s court appearances.
Many of the refugees who took part in the protests in Cape Town and Pretoria eventually returned to their communities and tried to reintegrate, as recommended by the UNHCR.
A number of those who were arrested during the protests have spent the past few years in prison and the Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp. When they were released in May, with no clear way to return to the communities in which they once lived or the countries from which they originally fled, they returned to the pavement outside the UNHCR offices in Pretoria.
‘Anywhere that is not South Africa’
Johnny Lowoso, 44, who lives in a makeshift tent with his wife and two of his three children, says the group doesn’t feel safe in South Africa any more. But he denied that they had demanded to be relocated to the United States or Europe.
“No, no, going back home, it is not safe. As we are talking here, I can’t go back to what I am fleeing from, the situation is still bad. Unless there is peace there. But for the moment I can’t go back.
“They can’t force me to go back, but they are forcing us to go back. They are not mandated to force us to go back … So they are using the excuse that we want to go to America or Canada, but no. We will go anywhere that is not South Africa,” he says.
Lowoso was one of a number of men who were arrested following the forced removal in 2019. He spent two years in prison for trespassing, after numerous court delays and postponements, and returned to the pavement campsite after his release.
He carries with him a copy of a letter the group wrote to the UNHCR. In it, they demand to be sent to another country and insist they will reject any attempts to be removed from the premises.
“We are letting you know again that if you use any force, we will enter in your premises by force. If it means to die, we will die inside your premises and it will be on your head [UNHCR] because we came here as vulnerable and you made us more vulnerable (sic),” the leader reads.
UNHCR spokesperson Laura Padoan said the refugee agency is “concerned for the welfare of the men, women and children who are living outside of our office in Pretoria”.
Padoan confirmed that it wasn’t the UNHCR that approached the courts but the property’s landlord and residents in the area. The sheriff delivered the court order on Friday 17 June, she said. “We are continuing to meet with authorities and the police to ensure that any action to remove the families is undertaken peacefully.”
The UNHCR had said previously that the refugees and asylum seekers would not be resettled in any other country and that their options were to reintegrate in local communities or return home.
“For those who express a desire to return home to their countries of origin, the UNHCR will assist them to return voluntarily where it is safe for them to do so. A number of the refugees have expressed interest in this option. We will continue to provide counselling to the refugees and we hope that a solution can be found as quickly as possible so that families are not living on the streets in cold and unsanitary conditions,” Padoan said.
Walu also disputes the assertion that the group wants to be resettled in a developed country. “They always say these people just want to go to America, just want to go to Canada. No, it’s not like that,” she says. “We already proposed them, if you are willing to take us just to one of your camps, because they have camps in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia. They can take us to any of these because we know we will have a shelter there.”