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Unrest at Soetwater

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Unrest at Soetwater

by Annelien Dean and Stephen Kihn
10 Jun 2008
Peoples Post
Peoples Post

AN "emergency" removal of a bus-load of refugees from the Soetwater safety site last night left City of Cape Town representatives fuming at being cold-shouldered by the provincial government, which executed the rescue without informing them.


Ward Councillors Nicki Holderness and Felicity Purchase could not obtain information from very senior provincial government officials on site on who had authorised the removal of the refugees and where they would be taken.

Holderness had asked Jeremy Michaels, chief director of communications in the Premier's office, where the refugees were being taken and why. "He said they were being removed for their own safety. Asked where, he said he could not tell us."

Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille heard of the removal only when Holderness phoned her about it.

Said Purchase, "They have not been told where they are going. They will be told en-route.

"I don't have an in principle problem with moving people, but certainly those of us who have been working here for two weeks should have been told".

The city has been running the Soetwater camp since its establishment, although a division of roles and responsibilities was to be clarified with the provincial government following the declaration last week of the refugee situation as a "provincial disaster", enabling the provincial government to become the lead agent in the management of the situation.

While the provincial government sent four buses to Soetwater last night, only one left, with about 20 refugees on board.

Jeremy Michaels said he was driving and could not talk when contacted for comment, but referred People's Post to Dr Hildegarde Fast, head of Provincial Disaster Management. She said that following a weekend of unrest at the camp, the provincial government had received phone calls at around 18:00 last night from refugees who felt unsafe and who asked to be removed.

"It was an emergency response that province said it would make transport available if needed. When the buses arrived, the people who had phoned were happy. Some refer to it as being removed in the middle of the night, but it was a direct response to a plea."

Dr Fast said that no formal communication was directed to persons at the site or persons from the city, as "both provincial and city officials were present and there would have been communication on the ground".

When asked for information on where the refugees had been taken, Dr Fast said that there was a destination, but this could not be communicated due to "logistical arrangements to make sure everything will go accordingly". "We just prefer not to disclose the destination at this time," she said.

Holderness let People's Post know after 23:00 that the refugees were told on the bus that they would be taken to the Retreat Community Hall, but then were taken to Samora Machel.

"They refused to get off the bus, and were then to be taken to the Chrysalis Academy in Tokai," she said. "At this time of night, when they are already traumatised, is this humane?" Holderness said.

When People's Post spoke to Robert MacDonald, Mayor Zille's spokesperson, after 22:00, he said that the Mayor's office was "in the dark". "We don't know what mandate they are acting on or if they have a mandate," he said. "There has been no official communication."

Tension mounted at Soetwater this weekend as volunteer workers were withdrawn, a group of Somalian refugees allegedly attempted a mass suicide, and a hunger strike was initiated. This following an unsatisfactory meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and government officials on Saturday morning.

UN representatives told elected leaders of the refugees from the camp that their aim was to assist the South African government in reintegrating them into communities.

The Soetwater refugee leaders, speaking on behalf of their countrymen in the camp, have previously stated that they wish to be relocated to another country or, failing that, to be sent back to their countries of origin.

In a press briefing held at the King of Kings Baptist Church on Thursday, the various leaders stressed that they are against the idea of reintegration. After the meeting with the UN on Saturday, a hunger strike was organised and has been in effect ever since. On the same day, all volunteers were withdrawn from the site due to safety concerns.

Stephen Kratz, a spokesperson for the volunteer centre, said there had been reports of threats made towards the volunteers.

"On Saturday morning towards lunch time, all of the volunteers were recalled to the main gate. We were escorted out by the police," he said.

On the following day, further drama unfolded as the NSRI was called in after reports of refugees walking into the sea in a threat to commit suicide by drowning.

Ian Klopper, NSRI Kommetjie duty commander, said an NSRI mobile unit, a police helicopter, and the Metro Rescue Dive Unit responded at the request of the National Ports Authority and the South African Police. "A thorough search revealed no evidence of anyone in the ocean, nor any suggestion that people were missing from the crowd," Klopper said.

Leon McDuling, from local Law Enforcement, confirmed that food is still being delivered to the camp.

"Food will not be withheld from people. The same food is being delivered to the camp and is there for those that do not want to participate in the hunger strike," he said.

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