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No safe place to call home: Refugees in limbo as CoCT set to enforce by-laws

With hopes of finding a safer place to live fading, the foreign nationals living at a church in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town have nowhere to go as the City of Cape Town prepares to enforce its by-laws and remove them.

Foreign nationals in their makeshift shelters outside the Central Methodist Mission Church in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. Picture: Kaylynn Palm/EWN

CAPE TOWN - Under a makeshift tent on a pavement in the busy Greenmarket Square is where you will find a Congolese woman who goes by the name of Suzie.

She has a three-year-old son, and is six months pregnant.

For almost four months, Suzie has lived in a makeshift tent, which is just more than 2 metres long and a metre wide. It’s held up by wooden boards, the only shelter, the thick plastic that covers it.

She and her son have shared this tiny cramped tent with two other women and their children.

Inside are two mattresses, bags of clothing, buckets of water and some toys for the children.

Foreign nationals in their makeshift shelters outside the Central Methodist Mission Church in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. Picture: Kaylynn Palm/EWN

Foreign nationals in their makeshift shelters outside the Central Methodist Mission Church in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. Picture: Kaylynn Palm/EWN

It’s been a hard four months, even though this shelter is bigger than most.

*EXPLAINER: Why foreign nationals can't just leave SA

She said it’s not been easy living on the street as it’s cold, noisy and the space was small.

"At night it's cold, and we all sleep here in this place. What we do is we make sure the children are comfortable first and then we go and sleep.

"But even falling asleep is a battle," she added, "because it's noisy. We also go hungry. We received donations weeks ago, but no longer. I can eat once a day, then I am happy, but my son has to eat."

Suzie is one of hundreds of refugees who heeded a call to leave what little they had and come to the offices of the UNHCR in the hopes that they would be given passage to a country that’s more friendly to foreigners.

Suzie fled her own country – the Democratic Republic of Congo - a few years ago because of ongoing violence and ended up in Pretoria. She arrived with no money and no place to sleep.

As time went on, she met someone who assisted her and moved to Johannesburg. However, she was told that in order to make money, she had to become a prostitute – something she decided against doing.

She said, thereafter she was assisted by a good samaritan who transported her to Cape Town and lived in a church in Parow.

During this time she met her current husband, who has been an asylum seeker for 12 years.

They moved into a room where they paid rent but when she lost her job, they had to move out again.

Suzie said there had been many times she’d felt threatened and recalled one day in particular. Last year, she got a job selling sim cards and airtime but that didn't last long because she was attacked on a train.

Some of the makeshift shelters outside the Central Methodist Mission Church in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. Picture: Kaylynn Palm/EWN

Some of the makeshift shelters outside the Central Methodist Mission Church in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. Picture: Kaylynn Palm/EWN

Suzie said she was almost pushed out of a train by angry commuters. And, what scared her the most was that she had her baby on her back.

"I was scared. They told me to stop selling airtime and wanted to push me off the train. I told them I have a child and they said they don’t care. I told my husband, and he said that I should stop selling airtime. So now when I am on a train, I cover my face because I don’t want people to know that I am a foreigner."

Suzie’s story is not an unusual one among these refugees.

When it became clear that their desperate sit-in at the UNHCR’s offices at Cape Town’s Waldorf Arcade was not going to get them what they wanted, and police moved in to disperse them after three weeks, the situation descended into chaos, and the refugees fled.

Hundreds found sanctuary at the Central Methodist Mission Church on Greenmarket Square, and before long, were camping out on the square itself.

The City of Cape Town flagged their presence as a health and safety hazard and went to court to compel them to leave.

On 17 February, the court granted an order allowing the city to enforce its by-laws. That means that within seven days of the order, the city can move the refugees, by force if necessary.

That leaves people like Suzie in a precarious position.

She has nowhere to go.

"I don’t know what to do, I am just waiting. I am just waiting for someone to help me."

Another challenge she is facing is getting her son documented. She said that when he was born, there was problems with her child's birth certificate. Afraid that she and her son would be sent back to their country, she's been back and forth to Home Affairs and even approached a refugee organisation for assistance.

Suzie said she was hopeful for a better life here in South Africa but has faced so many challenges and all she wants is a safe place to call home. And, when she heard about the sit-in she joined, thinking this would be a great chance to live somewhere outside the country.

She still has hope that there’s a better place to raise her family.

"I just want to leave this country, it’s not safe."