A few hundred refugees and asylum seekers who have been housed in a central Cape Town church have promised to leave by the weekend.
The group of a few hundred people have been living inside the Greenmarket Square Methodist Church since their forced removal by police from the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the end of October.
A similar occupation took place at the Pretoria UNHCR offices last month.
Their leaving the church will end months of tensions between the refugees, the government and humanitarian agencies.
The group was demanding that they be taken to another country because they no longer felt safe in South Africa.
Their imminent departure is also motivated by the deaths of four boys from the group, who drowned after being swept out to sea by strong currents off Three Anchor Bay, near the city centre, two weeks ago.At the time of their drowning, the boys’ relatives said they had gone swimming to escape the close living quarters of the church.
Papi Sakumi, one of the group’s leaders, said: “We were asked by the pastor of the church to wait till after the burial of those boys before we leave. But we’ll hopefully be gone by the weekend. We will leave by ourselves, even if we have no place to go.”
Earlier this week, the City of Cape Town approached the high court for an order to have the refugees removed from the church and the immediate vicinity of Greenmarket Square.
The city said it was enforcing municipal by-laws against urinating and defecating in public, open fires and people washing themselves in public.
There were also complaints from businesses and hotels in the centre of the city that the refugees had affected business.
A spokesperson for one hotel, Inn on the Square, said it was losing up to R50000 a day in cancelled bookings. It also alleged that guests and employees had been intimidated.
The city’s fire and safety inspectors warned that the crowded church was a health risk. Every available space — including the altar — is covered with mattresses or bedding.Extra fire extinguishers have brought into the church as a precaution.
If the order to evict the refugees is granted, it is unclear how it would be enforced. The church’s Reverend Alan Storey said that although he had asked the people to leave, and although the situation inside the church had become untenable, he would never allow police to enter the church.
At court, refugees represented themselves against advocates for the city and the department of home affairs.The department is a respondent in the case.
The group’s leader, Jean-Pierre Balous, dismissed the allegations of intimidation.
He instead accused police, the city and the government of not keeping them safe.
But the court wants an amicable solution to the impasse.
Judge Kate Savage ordered the parties to meet and find a dignified solution, especially for the hundreds of women and children who have been sleeping on floors and benches for weeks.
The group’s other leaders, including Sakumi, said discussions with the city since then had been positive.
“The court said we must meet with the city, police and home affairs. We started those meetings immediately and, hopefully, we will find a conclusion. We requested temporary accommodation. They said they will come back to us. But we will wait for the court to get back to us with a final decision,” Sakumi said.
Accommodation is not the only concern. The displaced people say that even if they leave, they run the risk of intimidation and arrest by police and home affairs officials because many of them do not have proper immigration document. They blame this on the home affairs department.
“We need home affairs now. They will have to come and give the people papers. They have said that they are waiting for us to have accommodation and they will sort out papers for those who don’t have papers, those who are newcomers and those who have been rejected,” Sakumi said.
Meanwhile, an exodus to Namibia by the refugees failed. Sakumi said seven families had attempted to cross the border, but were prevented because many of them do not have the correct documents. “We had 66 people who travelled to the border with Namibia. They were sent back. So, that is not happening anymore. That plan is out of order.”