JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Police in the South African city of Cape Town used water cannons Wednesday while arresting and dispersing hundreds of refugees and asylum-seekers, including children, who had camped for weeks outside the U.N. refugee agency’s office seeking protection after anti-immigrant attacks.
Local human rights and legal groups expressed shock over images of small children clinging to people being dragged away by police. Some people screamed in protest as officers with riot shields and batons moved through the crowd.
Police said they arrested about 100 people who “failed to heed the call to disperse.” Many who weren’t arrested fled to a nearby church.
Some refugees and asylum-seekers had told local media they wanted to be relocated outside the country after a wave of deadly attacks on foreigners in South African cities earlier this year. Such attacks have erupted several times over the years in sub-Saharan Africa’s most developed economy.
Police said officers were executing an Oct. 18 court order after a landlord applied to evict the 300 or so people who had been camping in the downtown arcade in a protest. The police statement said earlier efforts by the U.N. refugee agency and others to resolve the situation amicably “yielded no positive result.”
The U.N. refugee agency didn’t immediately respond to questions about the police operation. Last week, it issued a statement saying “false messages” were being circulated about resettlement and evacuation, adding that only a very small number of refugees meet the criteria for resettlement and that no planes or buses were on the way to help in evacuations.
It also warned of fraudulent requests for fees for resettlement and repeated its services are free.
Earlier this year more than 12 people were killed and over 700 arrested after bands of South Africans in Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, launched attacks against foreign-owned shops and stalls, looting and burning them and attacking some shopkeepers.
The attacks angered many African countries and led to an extraordinary airlift of hundreds of Nigerians. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the violence as “unacceptable.” During a later visit to South Africa, he and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said “early warning mechanisms” would be put in place to avoid further attacks.
Ramaphosa’s government has faced criticism for not explicitly speaking out against xenophobia at first but instead framing the violence as crime.
Ramaphosa, who later called the xenophobia “regrettable,” has acknowledged frustrations about South Africa’s high unemployment — now 29%, the highest in more than a decade — and its sluggish economy, but he has told his countrymen not to take it out on foreigners.
For their part, many seeking refuge in South Africa criticize the government for not making the process easy.
A report released Tuesday by Amnesty International said it found about 96% of asylum applications were rejected and a “massive backlog” exists of some 190,000 appeals and case reviews. Some asylum seekers have been in limbo for close to two decades, the report said.
Failures in the system are “leaving hundreds of thousands of applicants without proper documentation and exacerbating xenophobia,” the report said. Lack of documentation can keep children from school, adults from employment and people of all ages from receiving some public health care.
The government’s refugee reception office in Cape Town, a city of 4 million people, has been closed since 2012, Amnesty International said.
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