Numbers swell outside UN offices in Cape Town as foreign nationals demand evacuation over safety fears

A crisis is brewing in Cape Town's CBD after more than 1 000 people made camp in an arcade, demanding that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) evacuate them from South Africa due to safety concerns.

Speaking on behalf of a group calling itself Women and Children at Concern, Pole wa Pole said the people camping in the CBD were refugees and asylum seekers who no longer felt safe in South Africa due to prejudice and violence.

"They are demanding to be taken to a safer place because South Africa is not safe for these people anymore," Wa Pole told News24.

The occupation in the Waldorf Arcade's corridor between St George's and Burg streets began on October 8 and has spread onto these streets as well.

Women and children sat listlessly on mattresses, while people queued outside to hand over copies of their asylum papers to a group of men and women collecting them.


A banner erected at the entrance to the arcade. (Jenni Evans, News24)

The intention is to hand them over to the UNHCR so that urgent travel arrangements can be made to get out of South Africa. 

They do not want to go back to their countries of origin, but have decided they could no longer live in fear and put up with the discrimination they faced daily. 

"In South Africa, there are two birth certificates," Wa Pole explained. "A yellow one for a South African, and a white one for refugees. Immediately refugees are different."

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He said when people applied for jobs they were asked for their "green ID book" - the South African identity document which is being phased out in favour of cards. 

Their asylum papers - which stipulate that they have the right to work - seem to carry no weight with prospective employers. 

Wa Pole said many people have lived in South Africa for 20 years, but were still subjected to being "othered".

He added people at the arcade lived in fear of being harmed simply because they were not South African. 

"I can guarantee you that by tonight I will receive a phone call saying that another foreigner has been killed."

'These people are afraid'

Photographs of people who had been injured or killed were pasted on pillars at the arcade near banners which read "South Africa you killing refugees" and "The UNHCR Refugee Convention of 1951 Geneva must be applied to SA refugees, our rights are not negotiable, Article 33". 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been at pains to stress that South Africans are not xenophobic and sent envoys to countries whose citizens were affected by the violence. 

Attacks on foreign nationals were also raised at the World Economic Forum Africa meeting in Cape Town last month. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni stood in for Ramaphosa when he stepped away to meet people protesting against gender-based violence. 

Mboweni said: "As an African, I should settle wherever I want to settle in Africa."

But these sentiments held no sway with the group camping on the popular lanes. 

"Some of us are business people. When our businesses are burned or looted, we receive no compensation. People say we pay no tax, so we must not complain. We pay tax for everything. I even paid tax on this pen I am holding," said Wa Pole. 

Private security guards, who work at the nearby buildings, stood at a distance as the crowd on either side of the Waldorf Arcade swelled.

Wa Pole said people from Burundi, Somalia and Bangladesh were among those demanding to be taken out of South Africa. 

"These people are afraid. They fled their home countries due to well-founded fears of persecution attached to their ethnicity, social, or political affiliations. They found the same persecution here."

'Homes and businesses have been looted'

He said nobody was helping them, and they were told they do not "belong here".

Wa Pole added they were waiting to hear from the UNHCR about their plight.

In a statement released by the UNHCR on Wednesday, the agency said it was aware of the concerns raised by refugees and asylum seekers across South Africa.

"We are working with authorities and partners to address the issues and improve the situation of all refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa."

It added that false messages were being circulated in some communities about resettlement and evacuation.

To provide clarity on the matter, the UNHCR said it provided the following:  

  • Group resettlement or evacuation out of South Africa is not being organised by the UNHCR and is not being considered as a solution.
  • The UNHCR is not taking names to relocate refugees and asylum seekers from South Africa.
  • Planes or buses are not coming to evacuate refugees and asylum seekers from South Africa.
  • Resettlement is only available for a small number of refugees and follows a strict criteria. Most refugees do not meet these criteria.
  • Resettlement criteria and procedures are set by resettlement countries, not the UNHCR.
  • The UNHRC's senior communications officer, Hélène Caux, reiterated to News24 that resettlement was only a solution for a small number of people, along precise criteria which was defined by resettlement countries themselves.

    She said UNHCR staff had been interacting "on a daily basis" with the refugees and asylum seekers outside its offices.

    "They [asylum seekers and refugees] also have other grievances, especially regarding access to documentation and the renewal of documentation. The UNHCR is reinforcing its collaboration with the government of South Africa to find suitable solutions as soon as possible," Caux added.

    "Please note that the groups of refugees and asylum seekers in front of our offices do not represent all refugees in South Africa. In fact, several other refugee associations are not part of these sit-ins," she said.

    Last month, there was widespread acts of public violence in Gauteng which left 12 people dead - two of whom were foreign nationals.

    "Our staff are receiving a significant increase in calls to our telephone hotlines in recent weeks, with people reporting that their homes and businesses have been looted, buildings and property have been set on fire, increased gang activity on the streets and rising incidents of sexual and gender-based violence," UNHCR spokesperson Charlie Yaxley said in briefing notes from Geneva at the time. 

    Yaxley added refugees were afraid and some did not go to work, thereby losing their income. 

    During the Katlehong violence, 800 people - mostly from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe - sought refuge in community halls. 

    READ MORE: Xenophobia: Agony, grief and fear stalks shelter set up for foreign nationals in Katlehong

    "Of those, 73 Malawians, 138 Mozambicans, 314 Nigerians and 72 Zimbabweans decided to return already," Yaxley said in September.

    A private airline also assisted Nigerian nationals who wanted to leave South Africa.