South Africa: Greenmarket Square Traders Ask Government to Address Refugee Situation

15 November 2019

The Greenmarket Traders Association wrote to Mayor Dan Plato on Thursday asking government leaders to resolve the refugee situation surrounding Greenmarket Square.

The letter is also addressed to the City of Cape Town, the Western Cape Provincial Government, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), and the Central Methodist Mission.

In the letter, the traders stated: "We are writing to you as traders who lease space from the City of Cape Town on Greenmarket Square. Many of our workers and your lessees are also refugees and asylum seekers who trade alongside people who are South African nationals and permanent residents."

They stressed the historic importance of Greenmarket Square not only as a frequent tourist destination, but also as an iconic area of Cape Town.

"For six weeks now there has been a protest by a fraction of the refugee and asylum seeking community in Cape Town. Many of their grievances are valid and many of our own traders suffer the same injustices particularly from the Department of Home Affairs. We have enormous sympathy for the most vulnerable people among the protestors," the letter states.

However, the traders noted that the central demand of the protest leaders, to be resettled to a third country (i.e. not South Africa, nor the countries the refugees had fled) as a group is "misguided and unrealistic".

The letter said the traders understood the refugees' need to seek shelter in the Central Methodist Mission after a "disproportionately violent eviction" from outside the UNHCR offices, but for two weeks now "the men who lead the protest have occupied the area around the Church, the Church itself, parts of Greenmarket Square, and the surrounding areas. The consequences of this have been dire for our businesses and for the people inside the Church, particularly the women, children and those who need care."

The traders observed the hazards of such a large group occupying the area, such as the over-used toilet facilities around the square, the protestors' cars displacing the taxis, which lease space from the City, the fire hazard of cooking outside the Church and around the market, and the mass group of people blocking the pavement at the trading area.

They also noted that the women traders do not feel safe coming to work. The traders lastly acknowledged the "failure of protest leaders and education authorities to ensure that children enrolled in school attend".

They said the consequences of these actions have caused a third of their traders to cease their businesses and those who have stayed have suffered a disruption in business, affecting their ability to pay their rent on time and in full.

The statement continues: "Our trade has been disrupted because of the failure of the state that has caused a legitimate protest with an impossible demand."

Reverend Alan Storey of the Central Methodist Mission wrote a statement on the Church's website, saying: "I also share the concern of the many traders in the area who are experiencing a loss in business, especially the traders on Greenmarket Square itself. This is another reason why a speedy solution [must] be found. These are people who themselves can least afford any loss of trade."

The Greenmarket Traders Association asked that their rent be waived until the protest has ended, that government approach the protest leaders to ensure all by-laws are followed, to negotiate with the protest leaders to vacate the church and surrounding areas, or alternatively order an eviction with alternative accommodation for those most in need.

Greg Wagner, spokesperson for the mayor, told GroundUp, "The mayor has received the memorandum, and has noted that some of the requests fall outside of the City's mandate. Where the requests relate to services provided by the City, the mayor has asked that these be addressed accordingly."

A meeting was held on Monday 11 November between the SAHRC, DHA, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the leadership of the refugees living in the church.

They proposed the following:

No refugee or asylum seeker children are to be turned away from school or healthcare facilities if they do not have documentation.

The DHA has agreed to facilitate and replace documentation that was lost in the protest, but the refugee leadership must provide a list of names of those missing documents. They will consider extending the deadline on permits in terms of the review of refugee status.

The SAHRC will follow up with the Premier's office to release possessions confiscated by police during the 30 October eviction of the refugees from Waldorf Square.

If the refugees and asylum seekers do not have papers or wish to leave the country voluntarily (by walking to Namibia/Malawi), the SAHRC will engage with the relevant authorities for safe passage.

UNHCR explained that group resettlement is not an option but that people can apply in their individual capacity.

The protest leaders turned down all offers except for assistance walking to Namibia and Malawi.

DHA spokesperson David Hlabane and SAHRC spokesperson Gushwell Brooks could not be reached for comment before publication.

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