Sanctuary-seeking immigrants seized in South Africa

15 May 2015

AP

Crackdown: a child walks inside Johannesburg Central Methodist Church, in December,  2010

Crackdown: a child walks inside Johannesburg Central Methodist Church, in December,  2010

HUNDREDS of immigrants who have lived for years at a church in Johannesburg have been arrested after a dawn raid by armed riot police, after weeks of violent protests against illegal immigration across South Africa.

For years, Johannesburg Central Methodist Church has hosted as many as 1000 foreigners, often Zimbabweans who have fled President Robert Mugabe's regime. But the families sheltering there were woken at 4 a.m. after police stormed the building as part of Operation Fiyela (which means "sweep out the dirt"). Several other places in central Johannesburg which sheltered immigrants were also raided.

Last month, the Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Revd Thabo Makgoba, demanded an end to a wave of attacks on foreigners, and urged Christians to take to the streets to call for peace and oppose xenophobia (News, 24 April).

The Government has deployed the army in some areas to prevent further attacks, but has been accused of "institutionalising xenophobia" after the raid on the church.

The church's former pastor, Bishop Paul Verryn, said: "Our government, and in some instances the police, are institutionalising xenophobia. It's beyond despicable, because you are dealing with, in some cases, profoundly traumatised people. We are supposed to be in a country that safeguards people's humanity in all cases, and it just doesn't."

Some of the migrants swept up in the raid have accused police officers of swearing at them, beating them, and using the derogatory term kwerekwere to refer to the foreigners. This was denied by a spokesman for the Home Affairs department, who said that the government was tackling both illegal immigration and violence against foreigners.

Some 300 migrants arrested in the raids have had their deportation halted for two weeks by the High Court of South Africa, to allow the migrants to consult lawyers.

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