By Tauhierah Salie
Reintegration is among the resolutions for refugees staging a sit in at the Central Methodist Church in Cape Town CBD. This is according to the South African Human Rights Commissioner, Chris Nissan, who gave VOC feedback on the engagements aimed at appeasing several parties.
The situation for around 600 refugees has reached boiling point, as living conditions have become intolerable and division has resulted in a major rift. The men taking the leading role of two separate groups are currently behind bars. Both Jean Pierre Balous, who is the presumed leader of those inside the church, as well as Papy Sakumi, the leader of those outside, made their first court appearances and have been remanded in custody.
Balous faces eight charges of assault while Sakumi is in cuffs over two counts of robbery. Sukami’s case was postponed to Thursday and Balous’s to Friday.
The refugees have been seeking relocation since October 2019, citing xenophobia with South Africa.
One of the leaders had rejected in previous months rejected humanitarian aid from NGO Gift of the Givers, after spokesperson Badr Kazi allegedly called their demands unrealistic. Kazi said they remain open to assisting:
“The refugees had one leader at the time (when humanitarian aid was suspended in November 2019). They asked us to stop because of certain stuff I said on the radio, such as ‘their demands are unrealistic and unachievable’ and that hasn’t changed. But, the dynamic in the group has changed, I think they split. One of the leaders that has emerged is more sort of pliable to some sort of solution.”
“As Gift of the Givers, there’s two facets to the whole situation. The one is obviously the political solution that needs to be found and then the other side is the humanitarian component, which we are a part of. So, when the meeting decides which way a solution can be found, we will follow the instructions of the meeting. If they say we need to feed the refugees then we’ll do so,” said Kazi.
Kazi emphasised that this exceeds just an accommodation issue:
“The meeting was trying to find a better solution than feeding people at the church, which is a health risk and a fire risk. People can’t live in conditions like that and we can’t be seen as encouraging people to live in a situation which might result in more harm in the long run.
The Humans Rights Commission’s Chris Nissan echoed the sentiment, noting that one of the most plausible solutions is reintegration.
“The moment you disagree with some of them, you’re discredited. The reason why GOG was chased away was because all of us said- not only the Gift of The Givers- that its unreasonable demands of wanting to go to Canada. The United Nations and Government have made it very clear: the solution is reintegration into the community.
It is unclear who has emerged as the leader of the groups and refugees have declined comment to the media.
The commissioner pointed to the volatility of the situation and how the risk of conflict has previously hampered negotiations.
“One of the groups has asked for Gift of Givers to come back. How are you going to give food or assist when entrance into the church is being denied, even to the health dept? How are you going to give food if you give people food if the one group must come out and the other group sees them and there’s conflict.
According to Nissan, Home Affairs will be conducting assessments to determine who is truly in need and who is exploiting the situation.
“It will start with Home Affairs doing an investigation and an assessment; because not all of the refugees sitting there are destitute. There are some that are very destitute, but some of them are working. They go to work and there are some that still keep their rental space, others had given it up. The church that was a place of sanctuary that has been turned violent. We need to find a solution away from Green Market Square and the Church.
Nissan said that a lasting solution needs to be implemented as every day at the church declines the refugees into a worse state.
“We need to find a solution in which we can say how can we help those people that are really destitute as the court has said we must look at alternative accommodation. Bring other agents like UNHRC who does have a relationship with NGO’s in supporting refugees who are destitute,” said Nissan.
“It’s no use we just put a bandage or pretend there is no thing, we need to resolve it.”
The Humans Rights Commission, The United Nations Refugee Agency, the South African Police Service and representatives of the refugees are among the attendees to the three-day collaborations hoping to bring an end to the impasse. They will meet until Wednesday.