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Violent clashes between refugee leadership may hamper resolution

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Violent clashes between two leaders of the refugees seeking shelter at the Central Methodist church in the Cape Town CBD on Sunday may hamper possibilities of finding a resolution to their housing crisis. This was according to commissioner Chris Nissen from the South African Humans Rights Commission (SAHRC), as a power struggle unfolds amongst the refugees, which has already led to violence.

According to reports, one leader Papy Sukami requested a church service on Sunday morning and the other, JP Balous, refused, resulting in clashes between the opposing groups.  The violence ensued when Balous barricaded himself in the church with a small group of bodyguards. Reports from the scene on Sunday night indicate that knives and machetes were used as the opposing factions threw bricks at each other. The church door was also broken and the glass shattered on the floor. Sources say Sukami, supported by the majority of the refugees, pushed back against Balous calling for him to be ousted. Western Cape police spokesperson Andre Traut said during police intervention, three men were arrested for being in possession of dangerous weapons.

The leaders have their own bodyguards and are understood to hold authority and power. Nissan said he had been in contact with the leaders on Sunday afternoon.

“It seems to be a fallout between the leadership. What happened, according to them, the priest did not have his regular service. I guess because it was a holiday, they asked to have the service. One leader requested the service and the other leader came and said ‘there will be no service’ and an altercation took place. The end result was that majority of the people left the church and took it outside with ‘one leader vs the other leader’,” Nissan explained.

“The police then came in and we then tried to get them to talk to each other, but it appears this has been a long time coming,” he added.

Balous had until the 27 December to file answering papers to the City of Cape Towns allegations of intimidation and harassment of its members. In footage VOC News has seen from the scene on Sunday night, some refugees claimed that Balous was abusive and have criticized him for shunning those who offered them food away while so many were hungry.

Nissan also said that the western cape department of health will be investigating claims of a chickenpox outbreak inside the church.

Dozens of families have been living in and around the church since October, after they staged a three-week sit-in outside the offices of the United Nations Human Rights Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and were violently removed by riot police. The refugees have cited xenophobic concerns and demanded that the UNHRC send them abroad.

Talks of resolving the refugee crisis came to a standstill after Judge Kate Savage postponed the case brought forward by the City to have the refugees removed from the building. At the time, the City called to prohibit the group from conducting a sit-in protest and damaging the property.

It also cited the violation of several health and safety by-laws as stated in complaints from the public. The complaints included that refugees were cooking and defecating in the streets near the church. The presiding judge then suggested that the City offer them alternatives in regard to the latter.

Judge Savage had postponed a case on 9 December and ordered that two meetings take place where the City of Cape Town, the Department of Home Affairs, the South African Police Service and refugee representatives discuss solutions outside of court. On Friday, 13 December, representatives reappeared where the Western Cape High Court heard that discussions had reached a deadlock. The case was postponed to 22 January 2020.

Nissan convened a meeting on Monday, 23 December with representatives from Home Affairs, police and civil society, as well as Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato and the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees were in attendance.

He added that another meeting will be held next Monday, 6 January 2020 with the same representatives. The commissioner noted that there are indeed people who are suffering but the expectation to receive housing is “beginning to dawn on them that it isn’t going to happen”.

“We will be looking at some options of safe reintegration as well as those who are completely destitute. Remember, some of the people were told: come, leave everything, there is a plane taking us to Canada. Some people gave up their jobs, others took their children out of school, people gave up the places they’re rented,” said Nissen.

“While Home Affairs wants to verify and help with documentation, there is also real needs, hence we have been setting up these meetings.”

He noted that Sunday’s violence put a damper on discussions toward a resolution. Traut confirmed on Monday morning that the situation was stabilized and police would continue to patrol the area to ensure that law and order are maintained.

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