Fence at Cape Town refugee camp removed, leaving people vulnerable

Dozens of refugees were left vulnerable on Thursday, when the City of Cape Town removed the fence separating the refugees camp from the notorious Bellville taxi rank. 

The heavy steel gate brings women and children little comfort.

“Now anyone can come in and anyone can go out,” says Hafiz Mohammad, a spokesperson for the temporary shelter. 

Shortly after the fence was removed a minibus driver is seen on video using the women’s ablution facility, ignoring a request not to do so.

Caroline Hajira, a refugee and mother of nine children, said she fears for her children’s safety and that of the other 200 children living in the shelter. 

The removal of the fence might only be the beginning of more services at the shelter drying up. 

Law enforcement officials tasked to safeguard entrances to the camp were withdrawn months ago, says Mohammed. 

It is not clear when the remaining tent, which houses hundreds of people — 580 according to Mohammed — and the ablution facilities will be removed. 

Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi reiterated in April that no South African law 

provide government authorities, including the City of Cape Town, with a mandate to allocate money to citizens and non-citizens. 

Felicity Purchase, the city’s mayoral committee member for transport, confirmed that the fence was removed by the contractor because the contract had ended in March. 

She said the issue of removing the fence has been ongoing since early April after “several failed attempts due to the refugees preventing the service provider from removing the fencing”.

The fence — called speed fencing — was initially put up to separate the shelter and the Bellville public transport interchange holding area for minibus taxi operators. 

“This site is intended for use by public transport service providers, namely, the minibus taxis. The site was occupied by the refugee tent at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic without the city’s consent,” says Purchase. 

With the easing of lockdown restrictions and an increase in traffic volumes, the city’s transport directorate had to “reclaim a portion of the land by way of a temporary fence”, said Purchase. 

The City of Cape Town did not respond to the question of refugees’ safety raised by removing the fence. 

Two temporary shelters — Paint City in Bellville and Wingfield in Maitland — were erected during the hard lockdown under the Covid-19 Disaster Management Act in 2020 after the City of Cape Town enforced its bylaws to end a six-month protest by refugees and asylum seekers in Greenmarket Square in the city centre. 

The shelters, initially housing 1 500 people, were to have closed on 30 April, when the department of home affairs decided to withdraw all state departments and agencies from its temporary shelters. 

But the two camps were not closed on the due date. 

Siya Qoza, the spokesperson for the minister of home affairs, referred the Mail & Guardian to a press statement, which stated that law enforcement authorities have opted to give immigration and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials time to complete their work.

The parliamentary portfolio committee on home affairs was told last week that efforts between various parties, including the government and the UNHCR, facilitated the voluntary repatriation of 305 refugees and asylum seekers. Hundreds more opted to settle locally. 

But a few hundred refugees refuse to move from the camp, demanding to be resettled in a third country, an option that is only available to a few refugees who are extremely vulnerable. 

The home affairs department did not respond to queries sent to them.

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