Businesses around the Greenmarket Square have complained about the mess left behind by the refugees who have sought shelter in and around the Central Methodist Church.
More than 400 people and around 150 children, who continue to live in cramped conditions in the church on Greenmarket Square, have started erecting structures and hanging up their laundry in the streets and on the Old Townhouse Museum porch, hampering the work being done there.
They were evicted from the nearby Waldorf Arcade on Wednesday October 30, where they had protested for weeks because they say they felt unsafe in South Africa.
The spokesperson for the group, JP Balous, a refugee from the Congo, said they want the South African government to release them to the the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) so that they can live in safer conditions. He said they wanted to be anywhere but in South Africa, where they felt unsafe and were robbed of the better life they were looking for when they left their countries.
However, the situation does not look good for the refugees, as the UNHCR says that resettlement is a very limited option for refugees in South Africa.
Reverend Alan Storey had asked the refugees to vacate the church on two occasions – one of the reasons being an alleged assault on religious leaders during a negotiation on Friday November 15.
The City of Cape Town had also issued the church with a notice to comply, due to overcrowding in the church.
Reverend Storey said the basis of this notice was that the building had changed from a church to a place of residence, and that the church was now in contravention of the law.
There were also continued health risks.
Reverend Storey said their main concern was for the women and children, and therefore the men were not allowed to sleep inside the church at night.
At least six businesses that the CapeTowner spoke to, who did not want to be identified for fear of being targeted, said they were fed up with the rubbish left behind by the people camping outside the Central Methodist Church, saying it was having a negative impact on businesses.
One business owner said they were having to clean the entrances to the buildings everyday, as the refugees used the street as toilets and cover the mess in cardboard. “The situation is frustrating. I hope the matter gets resolved quickly.”
Another business owner said the refugees camping outside was bad for business.
“This is supposed to be our season, but business is very slow. Its not a conducive environment and people are scared because they don’t know what is happening – in fact, neither do we.”
Senior communications officer at the UNHCR, Helene Caux, said the UNHCR was working closely with the authorities and civil society to help find a peaceful solution to the protest.
“We recognise that the government is the primary duty bearer when it comes to protecting refugees, asylum-seekers, and foreigners as everyone in South Africa, as well as when it comes to make sure laws are being respected on the territory.
“The protesters are demanding to be resettled to other countries. We understand that for many refugees this is what they would really like and expect as the best solution for them. However, resettlement is reserved for a small number of refugees, undertaken on a case by case protection basis.”
She said there were some 26 million refugees and asylum-seekers worldwide, a figure which is increasing every year. Only up to 1% of the refugee population in the world will have a chance of being resettled every year.
“For South Africa we have a quota of 700 places in 2019 and it is already more than 75% filled.
“Some refugees in SA may decide they would like to voluntarily return to their country of origin, others may want to return into their communities or go to live in other communities in South Africa. The UNHCR and its partners can assist them to go back and provide information so that they can make an informed choice.”
Ms Caux said the UNHCR urged the refugees to return to the communities and continue to be integrated, and also urged parents to send their children back to school.
In the meantime, Mr Balous said the refugees are aware that the stay at the church was temporary, and said they are preparing to leave and walk to the borders, because the government did not want to help them leave the country.
However, he said, they were waiting for their comrades to be released, who were arrested during a sit-in protest at the UN refugee agency in Pretoria on Friday.
Mr Balous said negotiations with the authorities about a way forward was ongoing, but they did not find a solution yet. “We don’t want to stay here, we don’t want papers – we want to get out of South Africa.”
Of the complaints from businesses, Mr Balous said they had tried to ask the City to open the toilets on Greenmarket Square, but they refused. “Before we were sleeping here, people were already sleeping here and using the streets as the toilet. Where are people supposed to go relieve themselves? People are not being considerate.”
Rooksana Omar, the CEO of Iziko Museums, said they were concerned about the safety and well-being of all individuals concerned, including the staff. “As soon as this matter of the refugees is resolved Iziko will be implementing its repair programme.”
Of the toilet on Greenmarket Square, Mayco member for community services and health, Dr Zahid Badroodien, said the public toilets at Greenmarket Square are operational and can be used by all members of the public from Monday to Friday, from 07.30am to 5pm.
He said when the refugees occupied Waldorf Arcade, the City’s recreation and parks department had an arrangement in place to have these toilets open 24 hours a day.
“This was made possible by a representative from the group who was assigned responsibility for maintaining the toilet outside of the normal operating hours. However, once the refugees moved to the church, it reverted to normal operational hours.
“Unfortunately, public toilets cannot be left open 24 hours a day, as this increases the risks of vandalism