The week given to refugees and asylum seekers occupying the side-walks alongside the Central Methodist Church has lapsed. The City of Cape Town (CoCT) law enforcement had this weekend begun enforcing it’s by-laws, including one that prevented anyone from occupying public spaces overnight.
It follows a court ruling which found that the City is “well within its rights to enforce the rule of law” ; and comes on the heels of a months-long sit in at the church. Around 700 refugees and asylum seekers occupied the church and it’s surrounds to seek shelter, citing discrimination and xenophobia within South African communities, particularly in Cape Town.
After rejecting offers to be reintegrated into the communities they came from when demonstrations began October 2019, they’ve repeated their calls to be relocated or repatriated. The City of Cape Town, Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have, through multiple engagements, rejected these demands, saying they cannot prioritize protestors over thousands who have followed the necessary legal channels.
Speaking to VOC’s Breakfast Beat on Monday morning, the City of Cape Towns Safety and security Directorate spokesperson, Jean Pierre Smith claimed that stakeholders had been clear from the start that the aforementioned demands were untenable.
“The UNHCR has been extremely explicit that there is no legal mechanism for them to be relocated. The UNCHR has said there no provision for the bulk relocation of people, they need to make individual application.”
“It’s not the South African governments decision. We don’t control the immigration policies of other countries,” he said.
Smith referred to statements made by Judge Thulare when the court case was underway, which found that one of the groups leaders, Jean Pierre Balousa, had deliberately lied to and misled the refugees by ‘incorrectly interpreting comments’ made by various departments. Smith claimed that Balousa knew that the process to be repatriated or relocated was an individual one, adding that he had himself been unsuccessful in his application to be granted access to another country on two occasions.
The interim order granted to the CoCT only applied to those occupying the sidewalks and the popular Green Market Square, where the protest has negatively affected businesses. Roughly half the refugees, who are still living inside the church, will however not be impacted by the court ruing given that they are occupying private property. Smith said the operation to remove those living alongside the church “went smoothly”.
“I am grateful that the operation went smoothly , we must thank saps and the sheriff of the court and the city improvement district. No injuries, (there was) some arguments and disagreements but no physical conflict. I’m happy that that was the case, we don’t want any injuries,” said Smith.
Part of the arguments Smith referred to were depicted in video footage and media reports which showed some refugees and law enforcement officers arguing, as the refugees’ temporary structures were dismantled and removed.
A number of the refugees who were removed from the Greenmarket Square vicinity had then moved to Saint Mary’s church St Mary’s Church, Hope Street, Cape Central Town, where they were denied access.
“Unfortunately shortly thereafter a group invaded the St Mary’s church between two of the masses and the church laid trespassing charges to which public order police. The City responded and removed the persons from the premises, which gave off more heated arguments, but again no injuries or physical violence,” stated Smith.
Smith said that a number of arrests were made.
“Two large loads of people were arrested and taken to SAPS because they are now in contempt of court and the court will have to decide what to do with them. I think unfortunately this group has exhausted their goodwill with just about everybody.”
According to police spokesperson FC van Wyk, a total of eight people appeared in the Cape Town Magistrates court on Monday morning in relation to the attempted occupation of the church. The arrests include that of one woman and seven men, between the ages of 23 and 50, who were charged with trespassing.
According to the City’s Executive Director for Safety and Security, Richard Bosman, says three arresrs were made after a group of the refugees settled on open land in the vicinity of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology overnight.
“During the current operation, three arrests have been made – three males aged 17, 38 and 41, charged with assault on a police officer, contravention of a court order and resisting arrest. This is an extremely volatile situation, which the City is trying to manage as best as possible and we appeal to everyone concerned to please allow our staff to execute their duties, in line with the court order,” Bosman said in a statement.
When questioned where the refugees would go to since they will not be provided housing, Smith reiterated that they should return to where they’d left when protests first began last year. Smith emphasised that every individual in South Africa has the responsibility to take care of themselves.
“They’ve had a fair amount of time to prepare themselves. They’ve had 10 days before the court ruling and over the last month they’ve seen where this is going to go.”
“They’re now left to their own devices and responsibilities as every citizen of our country is. Every person’s welfare is in their own hands, the same is true for asylum seekers and foreign nationals. If there is or has to be, it will evidently have to be the responsibility of the department of home affairs because they alone are enjoined in the constitution to handle such matters,” he added.
Smith said that operations will be conducted throughout the week to “deal with persons who have now set up in parks and other areas.”
“Over the next few days I’m afraid there will probably be this kind of cat-and-mouse response-and-reaction, which is unfortunate. But I think over time people will get the message and find new accommodation for themselves understanding that the state is not going to attend to them,” said Smith.
He also added that relocation as a result of xenophobic attacks, as in 2008, does not apply as there have been no such cases reported. The R240 million operation resulted in the Disaster Management Act being activated after at least 60 refugees were killed.
“We will have to monitor the situation over the next few days. The court order states that the refugees will not be able to occupy public spaces as the court expects them to return home,” added Smith
Meanwhile, roads in the CBD were blocked off after some refugees had made their way to an open plot between Herald Cressy High School and Trafalgar High School. According to VOC’s Goolam Fakier at around 9am, refugee children were seen playing in the park while the refugees were “minding their own business”.
Law enforcement had however then reported to the scene three hours later and the general public had been barred from accessing the area. Some media houses, who had presumably gathered prior to enforcement showing up, had been allowed to stay.
Fakier said the police had “come out in full force and forced the refugees into the road”. Apart from verbal arguments between the refugees and officials there was no violence.
Speaking to some of the refugees, Fakier said some stated they would prefer “being in a jail cell because there they will facilities such as a bathroom and place to sleep.”