South Africa: Police repeatedly turn on asylum-seekers amid xenophobia spike

The South African authorities must stop trying to ‘squeeze out’ asylum-seekers Amnesty International said today, after police used pepper spray and stun grenades to repel desperate crowds outside a Cape Town refugee office.

Crowds of around a thousand asylum-seekers and refugees trying to legally renew their permits at the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office have been refused entry since Monday 27 May, and over three days have been on the receiving end of stun grenades, pepper spray, warning shots and a fire-hose. 

The tensions outside the Cape Town office come amid a recent national spike in attacks on small businesses owned by asylum-seekers and refugees. 

A witness to the first incident on 27 May told Amnesty International: 

“Suddenly the crowd started moving backwards. I asked someone what was happening and they told me the police were [pepper] spraying people. Then I heard a loud boom which sounded like a gunshot and the crowd started running. I ran with them. I saw a man with blood running down his head and two men with red eyes who had been sprayed.”

The same day not only did police use pepper spray, but security guards used a fire hose to force back a thousand asylum-seekers and refugees, including small children and their mothers, who were waiting to renew their papers. Reports of gunshot-like booming noises were consistent with the alleged use of stun grenades.

Since the previous week, only women and children have been allowed to access the Refugee Reception Office, leaving hundreds of increasingly anxious and angry male asylum-seekers and refugees outside. 

Witnesses reported the use of stun grenades and warning shots to disperse the crowd on 28 May, and today security guards physically beat back the crowd.  

The Department of Home Affairs has been attempting to close down the Cape Town office entirely as part of an apparent government plan to shut down urban refugee offices and move all asylum services to the country’s borders. Their actions have been vigorously challenged by refugee rights organizations in the courts. 

“There is intolerable pressure building up on asylum-seekers and refugees in South Africa, undermining the protection to which they are entitled under domestic and international law,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Africa Director.  

New department practices and a huge backlog have meant that the crowd has grown desperate after being continually turned away. 

One asylum-seeker who had fallen and injured his hand while being fire-hosed on 27 May told Amnesty International that he, like many of the others, had been queuing since 4:00am to renew his permit. 

Many interviewed by Amnesty International now have expired permits despite queuing daily from before sunrise for a week, leaving them vulnerable to fines, detention, deportation or risk of forced removal to the country from which they may have fled persecution.  

Despite a High Court ruling in March requiring them to maintain full services, the Refugee Reception Office in Cape Town has stopped providing services to people trying to lodge asylum claims, and to those asylum-seekers who first registered with another office even if it was a great distance from Cape Town. The Department of Home Affairs is currently appealing the High Court order.

Amnesty International also warned of an increasingly hostile, discriminatory and xenophobic environment for those seeking asylum in South Africa. In 2012 incidents of looting and destruction of shops and displacement of asylum-seekers and refugees occurred in nearly every province, and the organization noted that this pattern is continuing in an increasingly blatant manner.

Humanitarian and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have repeatedly appealed to South Africa’s government to implement a nationally led strategy of prevention, protection and access to justice for the victims of these crimes. This has failed to happen. 

“The government’s failure to mount a meaningful response to the continuing violence against refugees and asylum-seekers is a failure of political will and a dereliction of their obligations under domestic and international refugee law,” said Netsanet Belay.  

“The potential of a repetition of the large-scale, rapid displacement of tens of thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers which occurred in 2008 is ever present, the longer the government fails to uphold their rights.”