Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has warned that refugees conducting a sit-in at Cape Town’s Central Methodist Church and near a police station will be sent back to their countries if they continue.
The minister insisted that the refugee sit-in had nothing to do with his department, and said bylaws needed to be enforced to deal with the issue. He was addressing parliament’s Home Affairs committee on Tuesday about the issue.
He said that if the matter was not resolved with the eventual reintegration of those involved in the sit-in, they would ultimately be repatriated to their countries of origin.
He revealed that three of the organisers – Aline Bukuru, JP Balous and Papy Sukami – had applied for asylum when they came to South Africa and were rejected.
When asked about this later, Bukuru told News24 this was not true.
She lives inside the Central Methodist Mission, where the City of Cape Town has no jurisdiction.
Motsoaledi could not explain why they were not repatriated to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He stressed that Cape Town and Tshwane should have enforced their by-laws during the sit-ins in both cities.
He said that when the Tshwane group was moved by a court order, the Tshwane metro closed its gates on bus loads of women and children being taken to the Tshwane events centre and then to a farm owned by the Tshwane metro.
This is against the legal principle of providing emergency housing when people are removed.
He said the situation started with a letter from Bukuru and Balous, on behalf of a little-known organisation called Women and Children in Concern (WCC).
They wrote to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, in July, imploring resettlement to another country because of xenophobic attacks.
In August last year, the UNHCR wrote back to say it was only a “remote possibility” because South Africa was a stable democracy with “enviable” laws.
But Balous rebuffed any attempts by authorities to meet with him over the matter, according to Motsoaledi.
The UNHCR’s head of the Cape Town office, Miranda Gaanderse, reiterated that it could only take individual applications for resettlement. Countries who made themselves open to this process had the right to choose who they would accept.
“It is not a right and is only possible for a small percentage, and if all other avenues have been explored,” said Gaanderse.
She expressed concern about the welfare of the protesters sleeping in the church, and misinformation and false promises made to people who joined the protest.
She said the broader refugee community in South Africa was settled, and was contributing to society and South Africa’s development.
Motsoaledi said he had already written to his counterpart in Namibia to ask if they would allow the refugees to relocate there.
“He said, ‘no no, that’s not going to happen, Namibia won’t accept that’.”
A meeting with a Canadian government official also took the Canada option off the table for the protesters. Canada cited the individual application requirement.
Motsoaledi noted that Balous and Sakumi face criminal charges. Balous faces eight charges of assault – five of which are for intention to cause grievous bodily harm. Sukami faces a charge of allegedly robbing a journalist of a camera and other equipment.
Motsoaledi said the refugees insist they have nowhere to go and must be relocated to another country.
On Friday, 6 March, Balous was in court for his assault case, and afterwards he was arrested for the alleged intimidation of SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) Western Cape commissioner Chris Nissen.
“Mr JP Balous and his bodyguards assaulted police and caused mayhem,” he said.
Balous was arrested and is currently in custody.
MPs voiced their opinions on the situation, with one also wanting to know what the UNHCR was doing with the money South Africa allocates it, and concerns expressed over the fate of the children, some of whom are being used as “shields” during confrontations with authorities.
There were also allegations that some of the people were paid to protest to keep numbers up, and that people shuttled between their homes and the church or pavement in the hopes of getting taken to another country.
Nissen told the committee that the Reverend Alan Storey at the Central Methodist Mission is “a broken man” – his church had been occupied since October with no sign of anybody leaving.
Asked for comment after the meeting, Bukuru denied that she is in South Africa illegally, and that people were being paid to boost the sit-in.
“People are capable of thinking for themselves,” she said, reiterating the dangers they have faced in South Africa.
She also said the UNHCR had never approached them.
“So we don’t know what to do.”
At the sit-in near the Cape Town police station, a tent had been erected and the group’s luggage and bedding showed no signs of being moved from either side of Albertus Street on Tuesday.
The committee now wants a report in one month’s time detailing how many people have been reintegrated, and what the Department of Home Affairs and the City of Cape Town is doing about the situation.