Refugee leaders refuse help from civil society organisations

Chances of resettlement are dismal, but leaders of group staying at church in centre of Cape Town persist with demand

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Photo of people in a church
Refugees have taken shelter at the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town. Photo: Madison Yauger

There are growing concerns among those helping the refugees living in the Central Methodist Mission (CMM) on Greenmarket Square in the centre of Cape Town. The refugee leadership has a single demand: permanent resettlement outside of South Africa or the countries they have come from. But no one they are making the demand to has the power to implement it, not the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) nor the organisations trying to assist the refugees.

Canada is currently the leading country for refugee resettlement, according to the Pew Research Center. It resettled 28,000 refugees in 2018. The US resettled 23,000 in 2018, down from 33,000 in 2017, and 97,000 in 2016. Australia and the UK have also decreased the numbers of refugees they are resettling. Despite the number of refugees increasing, 20.4 million people worldwide according to UNHCR, resettlement opportunities are declining.

In the light of this, the refugees in the church are highly unlikely to be resettled outside South Africa. But the refugee leadership have turned away organisations offering anything but permanent resettlement.

Jean-Pierre Balous, one of the refugee leaders, told GroundUp, “We are very certain that a generous country will still want refugees. There is no way they can accept people from Syria, and not accept people who are in danger here in South Africa. We are putting each and every country, ward and organisation to the test.”

A collection of organisations, dubbed the solidarity committee, have been meeting to coordinate services for the group living in the church, but have now been shut out by Balous and other leaders. They received a message over the weekend stating the refugees would not be engaging further with the committee. The message accused the South African organisations of protecting their country and government, and refused all future negotiations.

While they wait for resettlement, the estimated 250 people living in the CMM are without consistent food and medical aid.

Reverend Alan Storey of the Mission released a statement online, thanking the NGOs for their kindness and addressing these concerns: “Together with the leadership of CMM I am very concerned that though CMM may have been a safe place last Wednesday from the police violence — it is increasingly becoming unsafe, mainly due to the health risk naturally associated with an over-crowded and under-ventilated space — not to mention our complete lack of adequate toilet and bathroom facilities.”

“The health risk is especially high among the young children, including many babies, as well as pregnant mothers. And of course fire risk is heightened by the overcrowding. For this reason, it has been clearly stated that no one is allowed to sleep in any of the upstairs areas of the sanctuary and there is strictly no cooking or smoking allowed inside the sanctuary at any time. It has also been repeatedly made clear that the doors of the sanctuary on the Longmarket side must remain open at all times.”

Balous responded to the health concerns, stating, “There is nothing coming that is medical aid. The people coming just want publicity. They don’t bring any medication. It’s just to come and speak to people and send them to the hospital, so there is no need for them to come here.”

“We know it’s very constrained inside. You cannot avoid sickness and disease when sickness wants to come to you.” He said they organise themselves to take children to clinics when necessary.

The other primary concern is access to food. Balous says the refugees did not have food resources provided when they lived outside the Waldorf Arcade for three weeks.

Gift of the Givers began preparing meals for the refugees following the highly publicised eviction from Waldorf Arcade last Wednesday, 30 October. However, following a Cape Talk interview with director Badr Kazii, where he said the resettlement demands of the protestors are unrealistic and acknowledged the opportunism of a “small vocal powerful group” of the refugees, the leadership has declined any further aid.

Balous said “Gift of the Givers food is prisoner’s food. The kind of press release their director gave, we are very doubtful about this food. He is not with us. He is turning against us. We are no longer going to use or take any food from Gift of the Givers.”

The refugees make contributions and buy and cook food to be shared collectively, Balous said. “We are surviving. We came from war countries. We couldn’t get food and we survived. This is nothing compared to that.”

A sense of uneasiness hovers in the space around Central Methodist Mission. Men acting as security stand at the front entrance with metal wands, scanning those who enter the church. Allegedly a man with a gun approached the church early Wednesday morning and was chased away.

“Safety is of the most concern,” said Balous. “If the police and law enforcement cannot protect us, who else will protect us?”

Rumours, likely false, have added to the tension surrounding this situation. Last week, claims surfaced that there were “seven missing children, five missing men, two dead”. There was for a short time three missing children from one family, confirmed by Legal Resource Centre attorney Sherylle Dass, but they were found at a relative’s house. No parents have come forward about missing their children.

Brigadier Novela Potelwa, spokesperson for the police, said: “This office can confirm that no murders have been registered in relation to last week’s police action at Waldorf Arcade in Cape Town.”

In the meantime, the organisations working with the refugees hope for continued dialogue.

Balous remains sceptical. “They’re trying to divide us and separate us. South Africans can pretend to love our children, but they’ve been denied birth certificates. We don’t have Muslims here. We don’t have Christians here. We have refugees, and no one is going to separate us.”

“We have been talking with Alan Storey and are very thankful for what he has done for refugees. We have been clear: whenever the church feels we are a burden to them, they can tell us and we are ready to live on the street.”

In his statement, Storey said, “As CMM we are also very clear that this is a temporary “safe place” and we hope and encourage all role players to seek a solution that will include vacating CMM. We are very aware that we are not the solution to this crisis. At best we offer a moment of calm in which we hope people can find one another to talk, listen and negotiate. As I said on Sunday, it takes courage to protest, but it also takes courage to negotiate. This is needed at all levels of this dispute. Refusing to talk and negotiate is never helpful.”

Organisations that have been trying to assist the refugees include the Legal Resources Centre, PASSOP, #UniteBehind, More Than Peace, people from the Department of Health, Women and Children at Concern, and One Billion Rising.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong date for the eviction from Waldorf Square.

TOPICS:  Civil Society Immigration

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