Police officers on Friday acted against refugees who had forcefully occupied the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' premises in Brooklyn. Photo: Brenda Masilela/ANA

JOHANNESBURG - Police management has lauded the SAPS's tactical response to violent resistance by refugee protesters at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) regional offices in Brooklyn in Pretoria on Friday.

In rounding up the integrated operation emanating from a case of trespassing opened at Brooklyn SAPS on November 14 after a group of about 500 refugees, including women with children, gained access illegally to the premises of the UNHCR regional offices, Gauteng police commissioner Lt-Gen Elias Mawela commended the manner in which police and officers from other law enforcement agencies responded to violent resistance from the alleged trespassers, Brigadier Mathapelo Peters said in a statement on Saturday.

On Friday morning, police arrived at the regional offices with the intention of effecting arrests as per the trespassing case opened the previous day, she said.

"As soon as police gained access to the property, the group started attacking the members while the women in the group were carrying babies on their backs and sides, making it difficult for police to react."

Instead of retaliating, police weighed options in terms of appropriate tactics for crowd management. Water cannons were deployed and police were, during that short space, able to apply tactics that ultimately ensured minimum injuries.

"Twenty-four police officers were injured, including six who had to be rushed to hospital as they had sustained more serious injuries after the group attacked police with rocks, buckets, and other objects, including dangerous weapons that police confiscated. The six officers were discharged from hospital within hours after receiving medical attention.

"To this end, all alleged trespassers have been removed from the yard of the UNHCR. One-hundred-and-eighty-two men and one woman were taken into custody by the police at different police stations, while 224 women, some of whom are pregnant, 169 children, and seven men were bused to Lindela Repatriation Centre as a temporary accommodation pending conclusion of the verification process by the department of home affairs," Peters said.

The 182 men and one woman were expected to appear in the Pretoria Magistrates' Court on Monday on charges of trespassing.

While commending the situational appropriate tactics applied by the police during the operation, Mawela had also extended a word of appreciation to the respective members of the UNHCR refugees priority committee led by the office of the premier, the SAPS, and provincial disaster management for ensuring that the operation was successful and was concluded with minimum incidents, Peters said.

"Lawlessness will never be tolerated by the SAPS; not under any circumstances. There are systems and processes in place which must be followed by anyone who wishes to raise a grievance. Those who are found to be undermining the law and authority of the state will be arrested and will face the full might of the law," Mawela said.

It was reported on Friday that after repeated warnings, police officers evicted refugees who had been occupying the the UNHCR offices in Brooklyn in Pretoria.

The refugees had been camping outside the building since October 7, but on Thursday entered the premises by jumping over the walls and gates, and then settled in the corridors and parking area.

This came after the High Court in Pretoria on Wednesday gave the foreign nationals three days to vacate the area. The refugees pre-empted their removal by moving onto the actual UNHCR property, arguing they were no longer on the pavement, hence the court order did not apply to them.

The refugees had been demanding to be sent to other countries because they fear xenophobic violence in South Africa. At the time, Peters said those found to be in the country illegally would be deported and "those who are legal will be dealt with accordingly". 

African News Agency