UNHCR stands firm on Cape Town refugee situation

2020-03-02 19:25
Refugees in limbo in Cape Town (Jenni Evans, News24)

Refugees in limbo in Cape Town (Jenni Evans, News24)

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The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reiterated it will not be able to resettle the large group of refugees involved in a stand-off with Cape Town's Law Enforcement Unit, which is preventing them from sleeping on pavements in the CBD.

The refugees were removed from the perimeter of the Central Methodist Mission on Sunday, where they had been staying since October, as the City of Cape Town enforces its public by-laws.

The stand-off continued into Monday.

A woman and seven men were arrested for alleged trespassing when the group decamped from the Methodist Church on Greenmarket Square to St Mary's Cathedral opposite Parliament on Sunday.

On Monday, police spokesperson Captain FC van Wyk said they had appeared in the Cape Town Magistrate's Court.

Invoke by-laws

Law enforcement officers swooped on Greenmarket Square on Sunday to invoke by-laws that prevent sleeping in the open around the church, as well as cooking, washing clothes, and bathing.

This was in line with an interim order issued by the Western Cape High Court on February 17. The court ordered a seven-day assessment of everybody living at the church, and after that, the City was entitled to enforce its by-laws.

The group moved to St Mary's Cathedral and were also removed from there. They then moved to a field near the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

WATCH | Nowhere to go: Refugees removed from second church in Cape Town

On Monday, hundreds of law enforcement officers returned to remove them from the field too, but it is not yet clear where they should move to.

Large trucks pulled up and after they were given a warning from a vehicle's loudspeaker, workers from the City's cleaning division started picking up cardboard, discarded blankets and other litter.

Law enforcement officers lined up and took steps towards the group, ignoring profanities and accusations.

After a short period, they stepped forward again, and repeated this until they got close enough to the group to force them out of the park.

Emotional scenes

There were emotional scenes as children screamed, woman shouted, and men towered over the law enforcement officers as they moved the group out of the park, and a rear guard of officials started putting blankets and bags into trucks. 

A pregnant woman was taken away in an ambulance after becoming distressed in the heat and commotion. Refugees chased the law enforcement officers away when they tried to help her, but female officers circled the woman to allow first aid to be administered until the ambulance arrived. 

The group has been holding out for resettlement in another country, saying they were targeted by criminals because they were foreigners. 

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However, the UNHCR said it was impossible to resettle them. 

"The UNHCR has been closely monitoring the recent government-led process which is in response to the court's interim order," said its spokesperson, Heinn Shin.

"We continue to urge the protesters to abide by the decision and hope for a peaceful resolution to the situation in its entirety." 

'UNHCR not in a position to resettle'

Shinn said South Africa was signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and was the primary protector of refugees and asylum seekers in the country. Refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa are protected by the country's laws and policies. 

"While he UNHCR's provision of information and assistance through assessment remain open to all refugees and asylum seekers, including the protesters, its programme in South Africa focuses on advocacy and support to local integration. 

"The UNHCR is not in a position to resettle or relocate protesters to a third country. Neither group nor individual interviews with the protesters formerly at the Central Methodist Church have been or will be conducted as resettlement is an option for a very small percentage of displaced persons globally who face acute protection risks. 

"In order to uphold the integrity of process, all individuals and groups are treated equally to UNHCR services and there will no preferential treatment accorded to any individual or group."

Meanwhile, inside the Methodist Church, Aline Bukuru wanted to know why the situation had been allowed to escalate to what it was.

"Where is the UNHCR? Where is UNICEF?" she asked.

People living inside the church are not affected by the order.


The City of Cape Town said in a statement that the removal of people from Greenmarket Square was a success, but it was followed by an alleged illegal invasion at the Cathedral's grounds.

The church laid a charge of trespassing.

The City reiterated that the refugees may not contravene by-laws; that they should return to where they lived before the sit-in protest started; and, that they will not be given alternate accommodation.

During Monday's operation, three men were arrested for alleged assault on a police officer, contravention of the court order and resisting arrest.

"This is an extremely volatile situation, which the City is trying to manage as best as possible and we appeal to everyone concerned to please allow our staff to execute their duties, in line with the court order," the city said.

Read more on:    cape town  |  refugees

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