Refugee case postponed

Taff Milambo, from the Congo, hangs up protest posters outside the Methodist Church on Greenmarket Square.

Acting judge Daniel Thulare said he would be no better than a judge who ordered people to be forcibly removed in the 1960s during apartheid, if he granted an urgent order by the City against the refugees on Greenmarket Square.

The matter was heard in the Western Cape High Court on Tuesday January 28, where the case was postponed to February 17 for judgment.

“I shudder to think that if these families were removed from the premises where they reside now, that they will, say, be dumped in the ocean if I grant this order. Where will the people go when they are removed?” said Magistrate Thulare.

The City filed for an urgent order to enforce its by-laws as the protest by the refugees on Greenmarket Square had become what the City described as a crisis which was affecting traders, businesses and tourism in the city.

The City’s advocate, Con Joubert, asked the court to grant an interim order to have the refugees verified in a space made available in Salt River for seven days.

The City will provide transport for the willing parties during this time.

Thereafter, the order, if granted, will allow the City to enforce its street by-laws which will prevent people from sleeping, cooking and relieving themselves on the pavements.

The order was amended to allow for SAPS to only arrest refugees who committed an offence.

He said it was unacceptable for people to be cooking and sleeping on the sidewalks, and intimidating people. He reiterated that businesses and hotels had been losing money. He said the case was postponed for a month, during which the refugees have not submitted evidence, and should refrain from giving evidence in court.

The leader of the refugees, JP Balous, said he was happy with the court proceedings, and they trust justice to take its course. He didn’t elaborate on their end goal, as he said he could not give a statement before the judge made his decision.

Tensions flared up as Mr Balous, arrived at the court. He had been arrested late last year on charges of assault after a fight for leadership broke out at the church (“Refugee leaders arrested”, CapeTowner, January 9). He was given bail and conditions included that he was barred from entering the city centre unless it was to attend court or if he had permission from the investigating officer.

Upon arrival, Mr Balous as told by officials that he was not allowed in the CBD. He could be heard calling officials racist, and said he needed to be there to represent the people.

The City had also brought a case against the Department of Home Affairs, claiming that they were not executing their duties to assist the situation.

The Department of Home Affairs representative, Seth Nthai, told the court that most of the refugees living at the church were verified, and after they had been verified, there was nothing more they could do for them. “The problem resides with the City council in which area this is taking place. We have not been inconsistent in our duties. We have never said that we did not want to verify the refugees – we said we cannot do it in the conditions they live in at the church.”

Meanwhile, a petition has been started by businesses and tenants on Greenmarket Square to urgently address the issues that come along with the refugees camping at the Methodist Church.

The petition, on change.org, calls for authorities to act in a united manner to solve the “refugee crisis”.

“Failure by authorities – notably the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), The City of Cape Town and the South African Department of Home Affairs – to act in a united manner to solve the problem, has resulted in a Health, Safety and Economic issue affecting refugees, citizens and visitors,” it says.

The petition also details issues that tenants and businesses have to face daily, including an outbreak of diseases among the children, children not going to school, the deteriorating health and sanitation issue and potential violence due to fights among factions in the refugee group.

“We call on the relevant authorities to urgently and immediately resolve this health and humanitarian crisis. Failure to act will be a breach and dereliction of their duties and obligations to refugees, retailers, traders, residents, visitors and the broader Cape Town population.”

By the time the CapeTowner went to print, the petition had 1 300 signatures on it, almost reaching its target of 1 500 signatures.

Meanwhile, authorities say they are doing everything they can to solve the situation, and once again called for refugees to go back to their communities as mass relocation is not an option.

The South African Human Rights Commissioner Chris Nissen said they were concerned about the frustrations, and have been meeting with the refugees regularly to find a solution to suit everyone.

He said the main concerns were people who had given up their homes and lives for the refugees cause, children not going to school, and health issues at the church.

Mr Nissen said in a meeting held on last Monday, January 20, businesses and tenants on Greenmarket Square expressed their frustration and said they were losing money and customers.

“The traders on the square cannot pay their rent because they don’t have any customers coming to visit the square. We all want this to be over now – it cannot go on like this.”

He said while some of the refugee protesters still believed leaving was the only option, authorities had made it clear that it was not an option, and refugee leaders should urge them to go back to their communities within South Africa.

The UNHCR communications officer, Heinn Shinn, said with the petition, their hope is that the refugees will accept that they will not be relocated.

“We urge them to go back to their communities. South Africa has a system to support refugees, and all authorities have offered their help and protection.”

In a statement, the City’s mayoral committee member for safety, JP Smith, said it understands and shares the growing concern and frustration around the refugee occupation of the Methodist Church and surrounds in the city centre.

“The refugees are demanding emergency housing from the City and eventual relocation to a country of their choosing. They have rejected the proposal of reintegration. The UNHCR has repeatedly advised the refugees that they will not be resettled in another country. The City cannot accede to the demand of emergency housing for this group ahead of the thousands in real need.

“The occupation of the church and the area around it has resulted in numerous transgressions of the City’s by-laws, claims of criminal activity and has had a significant impact on the businesses.”

Mr Smith accused the national Department of Home Affairs of beng absent from a crisis which only they were able to resolve, leaving the rest to try and resolve it with inadequate powers and options.

The refugees were offered sanctuary in the Central Methodist Church following an eviction to end the illegal occupation of the area outside the Waldorf Building in St George’s Mall in October last year.

Since then, there has been a split in allegiances, resulting in some of the group members erecting temporary shelters in the area outside the church.

People have been using the sidewalks to cook, bath and relieve themselves and have been sleeping around Greenmarket Square (“Roads filled with ‘rubbish’”, CapeTowner, November 28, 2019).