South African police on Friday raided the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, which has been used as a haven for undocumented immigrants, making hundreds of arrests.
Officers detained 400 people, said Katlego Mogale, a police spokeswoman. Reverend Ndumiso Ncombo, the head of the church, put the number higher.
“They arrested exactly 570 people, all of which were foreign nationals who are undocumented,” Ncombo said by phone. The raids started at 4:30 a.m., he said. “As I am speaking to you they are evicting people” from two streets in the center of South Africa’s biggest city close to the church, he said.
The country hosts about 65,000 refugees and 295,000 asylum seekers, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. There are a total of 1.7 million foreigners in the country, census data from 2011 shows.
Police said criminals have been operating from vacant inner-city buildings in the area near the Central Methodist Church and a body was found during the raids. “It is suspected that it might have been dumped there,” said Mogale. Department of Home Affairs officials are verifying the status of the 400 arrested, she said.
South Africa has this year experienced its worst outbreak of violence directed at foreigners since 2008. Three South Africans, a Bangladeshi, an Ethiopian, a Mozambican and a Zimbabwean have died and thousands were driven from their homes since anti-immigrant violence flared in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province at the end of March. In January, five people were killed in attacks in townships around Johannesburg.
Some poor South Africans see the immigrants as competitors for jobs and business opportunities in a country where 24 percent of the workforce is unemployed and a fifth of the population of 54 million survive on less than 335 rand ($28) a month.