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WATCH | Officers remove refugees' illegal structures in Cape Town CBD

Hundreds of law enforcement officers, some wearing masks over their mouths, arrived in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town on Sunday morning to enforce the court order allowing the city to remove refugees illegally camping outside the Central Methodist Church. Their structures were dismantled by the officers.

Some refugees had packed up their tents and mattresses early in the day, in readiness. The operation was peaceful, with officials working steadily, although they were being heckled by some of the refugees.

By lunchtime, many of the refugees - who had been occupying the space since October - had left Greenmarket Square.

During the operation, refugees shouted at police, accusing South Africans of being liars, criminals and corrupt.

“Our eyes are open, you are eating our money. We are suffering. Just come kill us here. Put us on an airplane and send us somewhere else.”

Another man, a Congolese national wearing an EFF cap, said: “I eat white people, with lettuce and tomatoes. You people are dogs.”

A woman shouted that South Africans are all armed with knives and pangas.

An interdict granted by the Cape Town high court on February 17 gave the city and the police the green light to remove the refugees and their structures.

Open fires, public urination and unsanitary conditions were some of the issues contravening bylaws that have been raised by the city. 

The refugees, who are demanding relocation to other countries, citing fears for their safety in SA, have been protesting for months, first outside the UN Refugee Agency offices in St Georges Mall and then at the church.

The UNHCR had advised previously that there was no legal possibility of them being relocated to another country as demanded, while the city had offered them the opportunity to reintegrate into the communities where they came from prior to the protest action in the CBD.

On Sunday, confirming the removal of the structures at Greenmarket Square to end what was an “untenable situation”, the City of Cape Town said its enforcement agencies “are monitoring locations to which persons are moving and will act on these if necessary”.

It added: “The court order says refugees may not settle elsewhere in the CBD, so persons will be in contempt of court.”

The refugees were apprised of the provisions of the court order, and had known for more than 10 days that the bylaw enforcement operation was coming, the city's JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security, said in a statement.

Smith said the city was not insensitive to the plight of the refugees, “but we can simply not allow the situation to carry on unchecked, as it has had a major impact on surrounding businesses, including the traders on Greenmarket Square”.

Emergency shelter elsewhere would not be provided to the group, said Smith, “given the great need that exists among South Africans, not to mention the precedent that it would set”.

“We appeal to the refugees to return to the homes they vacated to join the initial occupation of St. George’s Mall. It is not legally or practically possible for the city to supply accommodation and no other sphere of government has agreed to supply such either.”