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South African Police Use Force to Disperse Refugee Sit-In After 3 Weeks

JOHANNESBURG — South African police clad in riot gear on Wednesday forcibly broke up a group of refugees who had occupied a square in central Cape Town for three weeks, pleading for help in leaving a country plagued by anti-immigrant violence.

Photos and videos of the raid showed police officers carrying away some of the protesters, their legs and arms dragging on the road, before the police shoved them into armored vehicles and vans. The police aimed water cannons at crowds, according to some local news reports, and some protesters accused the officers of firing rubber bullets at them, showing the welts on their bodies to journalists.

The police said about 100 people were arrested after they failed to heed the call to disperse from the area they have occupied since Oct. 8. Some 300 refugees have camped outside the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on St. George’s Mall, a square known for hotels and a popular tourist market.

They have called on the refugee agency to either help them return to their home countries, or help them travel to safer countries following the latest outburst of violence against immigrants.

“We were nonviolent,” said one of the protesters, Papy Sukami, adding that the police used pepper spray and tear gas. “They beat us and arrested us for nothing.”

Last month, 12 people were killed in xenophobic riots around country, although most of the victims were South Africans. Groups attacked foreign-owned shops, blaming foreigners for taking jobs and stealing opportunities while locals face record unemployment. Their targets were people from other parts of Africa and from South Asia.

In Cape Town, the police said they were acting on behalf of the sheriff of the court, who was ordered by the city’s magistrate’s court to remove the protesters. The landlord of a nearby building, the Waldorf Arcade, had requested the court order.

Local officials said the protesters presented a safety hazard because they had made cooking fires on the square and had slept under makeshift tents, or in the open, exposed to the city’s unpredictable weather.

The United Nations refugee agency has offices in Waldorf Arcade, and the other tenants were threatening to withhold their rent if the protesters were not removed, the building’s owner told a local radio station. The refugee agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The national police force, the South African Police Service, said in a statement that the refugee agency and others had taken part in previous but failed efforts “to resolve the impasse in an amicable manner.”

Mr. Sukami, the protester, said he was speaking to a reporter from a crowded Cape Town police station. He said he had refused to give up his mobile phone, and believed he was being held unlawfully. Mr. Sukami said he fled Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, nine years ago, after leading a labor strike against a state-owned company.

As fear of anti-immigrant violence grew in recent years, he and other members of the Congolese community in Cape Town started a group called the Kongolese Freedom Fighters in 2018. That group has been at the forefront of the sit-in, which has also included refugees and migrants from Burundi, Somalia and Pakistan.

“They are killing refugees in this country,” Mr. Sukami said.

A similar protest is underway outside the refugee agency’s office in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital.

Last week, residents’ associations from the suburbs of Waterkloof and Brooklyn approached a court to have that temporary camp moved away from their homes and businesses. Local news media reported that some sympathetic residents distributed blankets and food to the protesting refugees.

“They’re still there, with no assistance, no water, no food,” said Gugu Mngadi, a spokeswoman for the African Diaspora Forum in Johannesburg.

Refugees from both camps say the September violence highlighted their vulnerability in a country that has seen sporadic anti-immigrant violence, disproportionately directed at African migrants. They also accuse South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs of flouting international regulations and dragging its feet in granting refugee permits, or issuing birth certificates for the children of immigrants born in South Africa.

Just a few blocks away from the clash in Cape Town, many of the South Africa’s lawmakers sat in Parliament where Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivered a crucial medium-term budget speech.

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