Refugees at Cape Town church planning 'mass exodus'

A banner waves outside the Cape Town Methodist Church. (Jenni Evans, News24)
A banner waves outside the Cape Town Methodist Church. (Jenni Evans, News24)

A banner hanging outside Cape Town's Central Methodist Church on Monday said the hundreds of foreign nationals taking refuge there were planning a "mass exodus" from South Africa.

"Refugees have decided to go on mass exodus out of South Africa," read the hand-painted banner waving in the wind.

This was after some of the people in the church rounded on a delegation of interfaith leaders and NGOs on Friday, who were pushed and shoved in a scuffle in the church. Others held the attackers back to protect the group.

The SA Human Rights Commission's (SAHRC) Reverend Chris Nissen and Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba were injured when bottles and objects were thrown.

The leaders of the group were engaged in a meeting on Monday morning.

About 600 people, including more than 100 children, have been living in the church on Greenmarket Square since October 30, after they were forcibly removed from a sit-in protest at the nearby Waldorf Arcade.

They had been holding a sit-in to get the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

They want the UNHCR to evacuate them from South Africa because they say they have been targeted for being foreign nationals and have experienced constant problems over their paperwork with the Department of Home Affairs.

They do not want to return to their countries of origin, but to another host country.

The UNHCR has said this is not possible and Home Affairs said it could not force people on another country.

Refugees' belongings

The belongings of refugees outside the Cape Town Central Methodist Church as some sleep. (Jenni Evans, News24)

On Friday, police detained a group with the same demands when they moved on to the UNHCR's premises in Pretoria.

They were taken to the Lindela holding facility in Gauteng for their status as refugees or asylum seekers to be verified.

In the meantime, a seemingly never-ending game of draughts continued under a tree outside the church in Cape Town. The clattering of the dice mingled with the sound of children playing and the murmured conversation of the adults, all in limbo.

In his Sunday sermon, the church's Reverend Alan Storey said he found Friday's incident disgraceful.

He understood that their circumstances could make refugees lose control, but he said it could also harden attitudes to their plight.

He has asked them to start making arrangements to leave, due to the fire and health risks of living in such close quarters, in between the pews and on the floors. He has not given them a deadline.

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