Where are they now?: Catching up with Cape Town city centre refugees

Another country: UNHCR protest refugees still hold out for resettlement

21 July 2020 - 09:48 By Tariro Washinyira
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The refugee camp in Bellville. Males older than 18 sleep in their own marquee. They may visit the female marquee after 9am.
The refugee camp in Bellville. Males older than 18 sleep in their own marquee. They may visit the female marquee after 9am.
Image: Tariro Washinyira/GroundUp

Refugees in Cape Town who protested to be resettled in other countries because of xenophobic violence in SA, are now trying to make a home for themselves in camps in Kensington and Bellville.

They had first protested by camping outside the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in St George’s Mall in 2019. They were removed in a chaotic operation and ended up spending months on Greenmarket Square and occupying the Central Methodist Church until April 2020.

Weeks after minister of home affairs Aaron Motsoaledi warned the protesting refugees to reintegrate or face repatriation, many were relocated to camps in Kensington and Bellville by the City of Cape Town as the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the country.

When GroundUp visited the Kensington camp on Tuesday last week there were three communal fires going and a stall with basic items such as fruit, vegetables and bottles of cooking oil.

“There are no bathrooms so people have to find ways of washing,” said Melchi Kazadi. “Some men use the bush nearby while a makeshift bathroom was made for women which accommodates four people at a time. Inside the marquee they stay as families. The generator [for light] is switched on at night and off in the morning.”

Kazadi said that since they moved to the camp they are grateful for the meals they receive from Gift of Givers, Philippi Village, other immigrants and individual South Africans.

The spokesperson for the Kensington refugees, Serge Kande, said there are about 700 people living at the camp, including 250 children and 188 women.

“The majority said [at a meeting] they want to be resettled. Some mentioned neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe. They don’t want to stay in SA any more. About 27 people want to go back to the communities [in SA] and about nine people opted for repatriation,” he said.

Tilda Wilondja is one of the few who wants to be repatriated. She was a baby when she was brought to SA from the Eastern Congo in the early 1990s.

“SA is all I know but constant fights such as what has happened a few weeks ago to immigrant truck drivers scares me. All of us here want a better place we can call home. I can’t call a place where I am rejected home. It is better suffering in my own country than where I am not wanted,” she said.

Fabrice Yanda complained that the UNHCR said they should seek advice through its partner organisations, but “we have never seen the partners for the nine months we have been outside”, he said.

On Thursday GroundUp visited the Bellville camp which was bustling with activity. School-aged children were having lessons in groups; preschoolers were playing with dough. Young males were playing soccer. Some men sat around a game of Ludo and took turns, playing in fours. Women were washing clothes near the bathrooms.

There are showers and toilets, and a tent with a gas stove to cook children’s porridge and donated meals.

The Bellville camp houses about 680 people, with 230 children, three newborn babies and 308 women. The camp is divided into two, with mothers and their children on one side and males over 18 on the other.

A man helps gather firewood at the Kensington camp for refugees.
A man helps gather firewood at the Kensington camp for refugees.
Image: Tariro Washinyira/GroundUp

Refugee leader Aline Bukuru said people are not allowed to leave camp as they please. They have two people who they send to the shops to buy goods for everyone. The temperature of visitors is checked on entry and they must wear masks.

“We are very strict because we understand the conditions we are living in. We clean bins, toilets, bathrooms, sanitise handles and surfaces all the time,” said Bukuru.

She said they were encouraging parents to focus on their children’s education by assisting with online schooling and going to schools to collect school work. Children in higher grades sometimes help teach younger children. Former schoolteachers are also assisting higher grade learners.

Bukuru said refugees who occupied the Central Methodist church moved to the Bellville camp. None wish to go back to the SA communities or be repatriated. “They are waiting for resettlement. Those who wanted to go back already did so after they gave up on the sit-in.

“UNHCR never came back to us. We deserve peace and security. We are not safe to go back to the communities,” she said. “Sitting in was our last resort after we had exhausted all other avenues such as going to parliament, demonstrations, writing to the government and UNHCR. In this pandemic people should care and show compassion, but refugees are discriminated against. If we don’t stand up for ourselves nobody will.

“NGO partners are always creating problems rather than bringing solutions because they know there is more funding in doing that. They create projects that appear to be enhancing refugee lives but in reality nothing reaches refugees,” she said.

Constant fights such as what has happened a few weeks ago to immigrant truck drivers scares me
Tilda Wilondja

Adonis Musati Project is one of the UNHCR funding NGO partners in Cape Town. Director Gahlia Brogneri said they have offered help on many occasions since the protest began and have been met with aggression and threats.

“Both our staff and community leaders we work with have been attacked by protesters both verbally (through social media and the press continuously) and physically as was SA Human Rights Commissioner (SAHRC) Chris Nissen.

“The protesters have had multiple engagements with UNHCR and the SAHRC and they have had everything explained to them over and over including offers of assistance since the protest began.

“On an individual basis several individuals and families that left the protest movement and wanted help to reintegrate were helped significantly by our organisation. We do not discriminate towards anyone who seeks help in spite of the blatant aggression and false accusations thrown at us.

“It is very unfortunate that the protest leaders are still not telling the truth about partners, community leaders or UNHCR and that the press is recycling those same false utterances. Our organisation has helped over 10,000 refugees since lockdown started in March (some of them among the protesters). It would be very unfair to our hardworking and dedicated staff who are all working around the clock to be at the receiving end of yet another false accusation by individuals with ulterior motives.”

UNHCR spokesperson Kate Pond said, “We are troubled about the continuing misinformation about resettlement that is being grossly misused to raise unrealistic expectations among refugees and asylum seekers. We continue to encourage all refugees and asylum seekers to take steps to reintegrate back into the community and approach our partners for assessment of needs.

“UNHCR’s position on repatriation is that every refugee and asylum seeker has the right to choose if and when to voluntarily return to their country of origin. UNHCR upholds this right to choose as the basis of the principle of voluntary return, which requires that repatriation is based on a freely-exercised and informed choice devoid of pressure.

“Resettlement to a third country is a very limited option for refugees worldwide, and is not a possible one for the majority of protesters in Cape Town. Only the most vulnerable cases with acute needs or serious concerns of persecution in their country of asylum are subject to resettlement. There are fewer commitments by resettlement countries in 2020,” said Pond.

  • This article was originally published by GroundUp

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