Refugees evicted from Cape Town church just want to leave South Africa

A few dozen refugees among the hundreds removed this past weekend from outside the Methodist church on Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square say they don’t know where to go or how to survive and that the state has not helped them. 

They sought refuge in October last year and asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to take them to another country, because they no longer feel safe in xenophobic South Africa. The UNHCR has said it would not be able to assist with a mass relocation. 

The City of Cape Town’s law enforcement officials were responding to a high court order that the refugees should vacate their temporary homes around the church. The order does not apply to inside the church. 

Some refugees made their way to the nearby St Mary’s Catholic Church opposite the parliamentary precinct. They were later removed from there as well. 

The number of refugees has dwindled, but police and city officials are still uncertain what to do with several groups living in the city centre, including in parks and public spaces, who have no homes to go to. 

The Western Cape Refugee and Migrant Forum said the refugees should give up on the idea of being taken to another country. 

“The city got a court order saying that there is no camping allowed in the CBD, and this is what was used to remove them from the St Mary’s Church. There are some that are waiting around the central police station. These are people who are claiming they don’t have a place to go. But we believe everyone should take responsibility, that their issues have been exposed to the right departments,” said the forum’s Patrick Matenga.

He claims some leaders gave refugees false hopes that they would be leaving South Africa.

Matenga said there was no other option than for the refugees to return to where they lived before moving to the city centre with their grievances. 

“People should go back to their homes. Although there is vulnerability [from anti-immigrant sentiment], they need to go back to where they lived in Cape Town before the [church] sit-in.”

The refugees have been accused of not being willing to co-operate with authorities to find a solution to the impasse. 

On several occasions, charitable organisations and welfare groups were chased away.  

“The department of social development put a plan in place by asking people to go to a screening centre and every case, and personal circumstance would be recorded. Those that needed papers could go to home affairs [department], those that needed medical assistance could get help, but they refused. Social workers went there, they were chased away,” Matenga said. 

Refugee leader Papi Sakumi denies anyone was promised they would be relocated. “Those are rumours. No one got WhatsApps telling them to leave their homes or their jobs. People came to the UNHCR’s offices out of their own will. They don’t want to be in South Africa anymore,” he said. 

On Tuesday, Parliament called for a resolution to the situation while urging the refugees to respect the laws of the country. 

The chairperson of the portfolio committee of home affairs, Bongani Bongo, said the refugees had failed to acknowledge that the UNHCR cannot relocate them and the countries they want to move to are unwilling to assist them. 

“It is untenable that the situation continues to persist, despite numerous attempted interventions that have not yielded desirable results. We would like to urge refugees to comply with the by-laws of the City of Cape Town,” Bongo said.


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