By Tauhierah Salie
As things reach a tipping point for the refugees in the Cape Town CBD, humanitarian organization Gift of the Givers (GOTG) provided much-need aid over the weekend. The sit-in of around 600 refugees at the Central Methodist Church has surpassed its fourth month and refugees have refused to budge on their demands of being resettled abroad. The refugees have cited issues including police brutality and discrimination, employment insecurity and xenophobia as their main reasons for wanting to leave South Africa.
According to GOGT spokesperson Ali Sablay, the refugees are starting to realize that they have set an unrealistic expectation.
“(During) my interaction with them, they said they were misguided by their leadership. They were given this false hope that if they all come together and sleep at the (UNHCR) that the government will be brought to their knees and try to get them to leave as soon as possible,” said Sablay.
He was referring to the start of their protest in October 2019, where refugee leader presumably Jean Pierre Balous, who is commonly referred to as ‘JP’, is reported to have promised hundreds of refugees asylum in Canada. They were then urged to leave their jobs, remove their children from school, abandon their homes and prepare for their flight. The majority had obliged, leaving them in a precarious position when the government had not caved as expected.
The police’s violent removal of the refugees who had gathered outside the UN High Commissioner for Refugees offices in St George’s Mall, drew international critism and saw the church leadership open its doors. In November, GOTG was shunned away by one of the leaders at the church who had noted that they will manage on their own. Soon, the church reached its capacity and conditions quickly began deteriorating.
The situation intensified after two leaders emerged, each claiming to hold the refugee’s plight at heart. But the division was made clear following violent clashes between the groups in December, which permanently separated the once united asylum seekers – into those inside the church and those outside.
Those inside are presumably led by Balous, while those outside see Papy Sukami as their rightful leader. Both the leaders appeared in court on separate charges at the beginning of the year, for crimes allegedly committed during the height of protests in October and November. Balous faces eight counts of assault, while Sukami faces two robbery charges. Both their cases were postponed to March 13th.
Sablay explained that their aid was rejected after his colleague, Badr Kazi, labelled the refugees’ demands of relocation as ‘unrealistic’. Sablay said the organization has maintained this stance.
“On Friday, we were surprised to receive a knock on our door of a consortium of refugees. They came inside and were very apologetic about what happened before. They stated they want to leave as soon as possible,” said Sablay.
Engagement between the organization’s management, the refugees and the church’s Reverend Alan Storey led to three days of aid being distributed. Between Saturday and Monday, GOTG donated much needed nappies, nutritious meals and water.
“When we pulled in there on Saturday afternoon at around 2pm, we received a hero’s welcome. People were dancing and singing in the road because its been months that they received a proper meal. the main thing was water,” said Sablay.
“They are tired now; they just want to be relocated and leave Town, which we think is a good thing for health purposes and for the businesses that have been suffering badly.”
There have been increased concerns for the health of both those living inside the congested church and on the streets surrounding it The Western Cape Health Department last week committed to providing the refugees with assistance at their local facilities but said they would not be providing aid from inside the church.
“Just walking onto the steps, you get the smell of the urine and foul smells. We were advised by the father not to move around the church too much, there are people coughing, babies’ noses running… so you could see there’s a lot of disease. It’s very bad, there are no toilets and they need proper sanitation,” elaborated Sablay.
“The best is to get them out of the church and for them to visit clinics. But, for that they need documentation,” said Sablay.
“They realize now that it’s totally impossible to be relocated in places like Canada and Europe These people don’t want refugees,” said Sablay.
Sablay described how women had come to the organisation saying that they didn’t have money to buy their children diapers and were forced to use newspaper. It follows calls from different departments to urgently find a resolution.
“It’s not easy with the harsh weather conditions. To see the women and children sleeping on the pavements in Town… We just pray that this issue is resolved and that they can be happy at the end of the day,” said Sablay.
Sablay added that after having exhausted their available avenues, the refugee’s situation seems to have reached a critical point.
“They just want to see better conditions for the people sleeping on the streets and at the moment to fast track (their options). But, there’s still a small faction who has this crazy belief that they would still be sent to America or something,” he said.
On Tuesday, the legal battle between the City of Cape Town and refugee representatives will recommence in the Cape Town High court. Judge Kate Savage last year postponed the matter twice, to make room for engagement between the relevant structures outside of court. Talks however deadlocked and no concrete plan was finalized.
In a statement on Friday, the City’s mayoral committee member for safety and security, Jean Pierre Smith said the City was doing it’s best to resolve what he referred to as “a complex legal issue”.
“The occupation of the church and the area around it has resulted in numerous transgressions of the city’s bylaws and claims of criminal activity and has had a significant impact on the surrounding businesses,” said Smith.
The court case relates to the violation of various health and safety by-laws. When questioned, Smith said these by-laws include: ‘the Streets and Public Places By-law, the Integrated Waste Management By-law, the Environmental Health By-law, the Community Fire Safety By-law and several others’.
“The City has applied to the Western Cape High Court to allow for the enforcement of its bylaws in order to address the situation, which was necessitated by another legal matter challenging the city’s bylaws,” said Smith.
He also rejected the proposal of obtaining a piece of land for temporary shelter. Temporary relocation, similar to ‘refugee camps’ in other countries, was among the suggestions offered.
“The City cannot accede to the demand of emergency housing for this group ahead of the thousands in real need.”
A meeting mediated by the Human Rights Commission on Monday morning saw engagement between the UNHCR, refugees and several rights and religious groups. The Human Rights Commissioner Chris Nissan said that the gathering, of around 30 people, was meant to bring clarity to those who needed it.
Attendees had opted not to give official comment ahead of the court case but stated that they remain committed to holding constructive dialogue in the hopes of resolving the current impasse.
Tuesday’s ruling is expected to provide clarity over the refugees fate.