By Sandisiwe Shoba and Noah Tobias
At first, Omar’s papers allowed him to stay for six months. He managed to open a small shop in Philippi, eking out a living – until the store was burned down in a xenophobic attack.
His papers burned with his livelihood. When he went to renew his asylum status at the Pretoria Home Affairs office, officials told him he couldn’t do it without documentation.
On Monday morning, Omar packed his bags in preparation for the long walk to Namibia, alongside about 600 refugees who have been camped out in Cape Town’s Central Methodist Mission since their forced eviction from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices at the city’s Waldorf Arcade.
The refugees share similar stories of violence and persecution.
The walk to Namibia is a 666km-long trek through the Northern Cape, where temperatures can reach as high as 38°C at this time of the year. The province is experiencing one of the worst droughts of the century, and farmers report widespreadinability to feed and water their livestock.
Many refugees remain undaunted.
“I walked through eight countries without papers to get here,” said Somalian Abdi Kariim Moor, who sleeps outside the church in Greenmarket Square with his wife and two children. “We’re waiting until Wednesday or Thursday, and then we’ll pack up and leave.”
Those who spoke to Daily Maverick said there was no concrete plan for what they would do once they reached the Namibian border.
“When you are a refugee, you don’t have a plan,” explained leader Jean-Pierre “JP” Balous.
Saahra Qalaaye was one of the few who wasn’t willing to make the dangerous trip.
“I’m not going to walk, I have six children to look after.”
Whether the march will take place depends on the outcome of a new negotiation, which SA Human Rights Commissioner Chris Nissen says is scheduled for Wednesday 20 November.
Despite Friday’s scuffle at the church, in which several refugees assaulted a delegation composed of NGO workers and religious officials, the Human Rights Commission is still willing to engage the refugees sheltered at the church. The group later apologised for the assault.
According to Nissen, the SAHRC has been the go-between between the UNHCR and refugee leaders. Communication had apparently broken down between the two groups.
A meeting between the SAHRC and the refugee leaders took place on Monday morning, where the leaders relented on their demand for mass resettlement and were willing to take the UNHCR up on its offer to resettle refugees on a case-by-case basis, said Nissen.
Yet, they are still willing to embark on a mass exodus if the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting is unsatisfactory.
“If they were open to finding solutions, there would already be something on the table, but we don’t see anything tangible,” said Balous.
“If they still want to walk, we can’t stop them,” Nissen said. He was told they would be asylum-seekers when they reach Namibia.
Balous contends that they never refused the UNHCR’s offer:
“We never said we don’t want a case-by-case basis.”
“We asked them to come and do interviews at the church,” he said, but the UNHCR allegedly never arrived.
The UNHCR head of external engagements, Joan Allison, told Daily Maverick: “We will not be setting up a table at the church and registering people.”
She explained that the UNHCR will not engage the request for mass resettlement as the South African government has a policy of local integration.
“It can take years to get resettled,” said Allison, due to multiple factors including the process of determining whether a person meets the criteria for resettlement, determining whether they are in fact a refugee and the host country’s willingness to take them on.
“To put this in perspective, globally there are about 26 million refugees; only about 1% get resettled.”
Karim Moor said he had never seen a single UNHCR representative come to the church.
“They didn’t speak to us,” he insisted. “We only got feedback through the leaders.”
Nissen claims that some refugees at the church had already approached the UNHCR as far back as 2009 to request resettlement and were awaiting an outcome. He said those cases would have to be dealt with first.
The UNHCR, however, cannot give preference to the cases of the refugees at the church. All refugee cases within South Africa must be assessed on the same grounds.
Since they have to leave the church, the leaders asked SAHRC to engage authorities and request alternative shelter, an offer which UNHCR had already tabled.
“I’m tired of being a victim,” said Ismail Dolal, a refugee from Somalia. After 14 years and two xenophobic attacks, he is ready to take any step towards safety, including this planned walk of a lifetime. DM