Some refugees camped at Cape Town church have relocated elsewhere in SA

Foreigners at the Central Methodist Church in Greenmarket Square after being evicted from the UN High Commission for Refugees offices on October 30 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa.
Foreigners at the Central Methodist Church in Greenmarket Square after being evicted from the UN High Commission for Refugees offices on October 30 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa.
Image: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach

Some of the foreign nationals who have been taking refuge in Cape Town’s Central United Methodist Church have started to accept relocation to other areas within South Africa under a scheme offered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

Chris Nissen, commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), said about 50 people had taken up an offer to relocate and were being helped by an NGO in the city. Some had approached the UNHCR for assistance individually.

The group's leadership had previously rejected offers from the SAHRC and UNHCR.

Nissen said the UNHCR held meetings with leaders of the group during the week since an incident in which Archbishop Thabo Makgoba was assaulted in the church. He said the group had apologised for the confrontation in the church. 

Further allegations of assault levelled against leader Papy Sukami have marred efforts to sustain the sit-in, and TimesLIVE reported last week that numbers in the group were dwindling.

Sukami vehemently denied allegations that he orchestrated an assault on two Congolese journalists on October 16.

Nissen, who was also part of the delegation "attacked" at the Methodist church, said most of the group remained at the church. Their leader, Jean Pierre Basous, said he would lead them in a walk to a neighbouring country, such as Namibia or Botswana.

Nissen said it was pointed out to them that going to Namibia would mean accepting settlement in camps and they would not have the same freedoms as they would in South Africa, where they had the right to health care and schools.

“Even when they enter Namibia, or wherever they want to go, there will not be the same freedoms there. In Namibia, they will be sitting in camps,” he said. “The Namibian government has been very clear.”

The standoff between the refugees camping outside the UNHCR offices in Cape Town and Pretoria has seen explosive altercations, with a large group arrested for storming the premises of the UNHCR in Pretoria.

In Cape Town, the refugees have been camping in the church since they were forcibly ejected from the Waldorf Arcade on St George’s Mall early last month.

Nissen said at a meeting last Wednesday that the leaders produced a list of people who had case numbers proving that they had previously applied to the UNHCR for help with resettlement – some as far back as nine years ago. The list had been forwarded to the commission, which would take up their cases individually.

He said it was made clear to the group that a mass relocation was unlikely and that they would be individually assessed.

“The opportunity for repatriation has gone down tremendously. There are no longer many countries willing to do resettlement.”

He said while he believed no one would stop the group from undertaking a walk to Namibia if they chose to continue with the plan, the number of women and children present in the group had raised safety concerns.

“I think it’s very irresponsible if they take women and children on that road. Between some towns it’s just desert. There are places with absolutely no water and no towns.”

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