/ 23 April 2020

Refugees safe for now but what about after lockdown?

March 01 2020 City Of Cape Town Law Enforcement Evicted Several Hundred People Who Had Been Living On The Streets Around Greenmarket Square For Over Four Months. Last Year Hundreds Of Refugees Gathered Outside The Unhcr Offices In Cape Town Demanding To
The UNHCR made available R147-million to South Africa to establish the Backlog Project.(David Harrison/M&G)

Refugees in two separate Covid-19 shelters in Cape Town are uncertain what will happen to them once the lockdown is lifted.

The several hundred, mainly African refugees and asylum seekers were originally housed in a church in Cape Town’s Greenmarket square.

The refugees have been divided into two groups. One group led by controversial leader JP Balous is being housed at a site in Bellville and another at Wingfield military base led by Papi Sakumi.

The two groups split into separate factions earlier this year with mainly Burundian nationals staying with Balous inside the Methodist Church while the mainly Congolese faction of Sakumi camped outside.

In March, Sakumi’s group was removed from Greenmarket

square and people lived outside in public areas in the city centre until their relocation in time for the lockdown.

A week into the lockdown, Balous’ group was evicted from the church and offered temporary shelter to see out the lockdown. But Sakumi said they want clarity as to what happens afterwards.

The refugees still insist that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) take them to another country, preferably in North America or Europe.

This was the basis of their original protest claiming their lives were at risk in South Africa. The UNHCR has repeatedly said their request will not be met, as they only deal with relocation on a case by case basis.

The South African government has told the group they should either reintegrate into their communities in South Africa or face deportation to their original countries.

“We don’t know what our situation will be after the lockdown. So we are still calling on the UNHCR to take charge of our situation. This is not a permanent place for us to stay. We still need the UN to take responsibility for us,” said Sakumi.

He confirmed that all refugees’ houses in the temporary shelter have been screened for Coronavirus with no infections reported.

But he also added conditions are not the best, even though before this, people were sleeping on pavements, exposed to the elements. “We are a lot of people crowded in this tent. We only have a handful of toilets for us, only three taps. The city is supposed to feed us. They give some money to Gift of the Givers, sometimes they come, sometimes they don’t.”

Sakumi said people have tried reintegrating into their old communities but failed. He said their finalhope was to be moved to another country.

“We want to know what will happen to us after coronavirus. Most of the people here will tell you that reintegration into our communities has failed. Even if we reintegrate and they say we can look for a job, what job? There is structural xenophobia in South Africa,” Sakumi said.

Relief and humanitarian organisations said they are monitoring the situation at relief sites and are satisfied that the refugees will be safe during the lockdown.

The City has said in a statement that it is working around the clock to keep vulnerable people safe.