Mediation process offers hope to refugees in Pretoria

Criminal case against 189 could be dropped

Photo of man handing out numbers in court

A state prosecutor hands out numbers to the refugees and asylum seekers accused of trespassing on the UNHCR premises in Pretoria. The prosecution opted for a mediation process, which may avoid a criminal trial for the group. Photo: Elna Schütz

By Elna Schütz

28 November 2019

The criminal case against 189 refugees who were arrested for trespassing on the premises of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Pretoria could be dropped if a mediation process announced on Wednesday is successful.

Seventy-eight of the refugees appeared in the Pretoria Prison Court at Kgosi Mampuru Correctional Facility, where the state prosecutors announced that they plan to take the matter to a mediation process.

Magistrate Lydia Painter said “hopefully mediation will be successful and resolve this issue”.

“Should they not find an amicable solution then that matter is then taken to court for a trial,” said the regional spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority in Gauteng, Phindi Mjonondwane.

Aline Bukuru, one of the leaders of the wider refugee group, who was present in court on Wednesday, was positive about this development. “We believe in and we are hoping for a positive answer,” she said. She says refugees’ main request is still to be resettled as a group in a new country, because they feel unwelcome and unsafe in South Africa following xenophobic violence.

The group is accused of trespassing, with a possible charge of public violence being investigated. This follows a clash between about 500 refugees and police on 15 November when refugees were removed from the premises of the UN agency. They were part of a larger group that had been staging a sit-in outside the UNHCR, living in temporary structures and tents on pavements and lawns.

Two homeowners’ associations were granted an urgent eviction order by the Gauteng High Court for the removal of the group of refugees, then estimated to be over 700 people. In reaction, the group moved inside the UN agency’s premises.

The refugees have chosen to represent themselves, except for one man, who opted to be represented by Legal Aid. His lawyers attempted to fast track his case by asking the magistrate to disclose his docket before the mediation process, but they were told that he would be processed with the group.

The mediation process is expected to take place on Friday and Monday. The next court appearances are set for 4 and 11 December if mediation is successful.

Refugees in Cape Town were involved in similar protest actions, leading to a stand-off with police and arrests.