A donor has given the hundreds of refugees holed up inside the Methodist Church on Greenmarket Square, Cape Town, gloves and hand sanitser to help them ward off the coronavirus.
The group of around 600 people still live inside the church, despite the newly-introduced ban on gatherings of more than 100 people.
The group’s spokesperson, Aline Bukuru, said if there ever was a time for governments and refugee agencies to open their hearts to them, it was now.
The group has already put up a sign outside the church barring any visitors in a bid to protect themselves from outsiders who may bring the virus into the church.
They are using the facilities at the church to wash their hands regularly.
The large group of men and women, with at least 50 children, has rebuffed previous offers of help, holding out for the United Nations to relocate them to another country.
They cite a fear of xenophobia in South Africa.
Nobody is showing any symptoms associated with the virus, but Bukuru is worried.
“We are all fine. We are just praying to God to protect us.”
She is also fasting, and prayer cells have been created in the church to ask for divine protection.
Bukuru reiterated her appeal for a country to accept them.
“They should [show] love at this time, and try and do something,” she pleaded. “South Africa can ask for help around the world.”
Bukuru said she was aware borders have closed, and airlines were severely restricted, but felt somebody could still come to their rescue.
She said she understood the Reverend Alan Storey’s position when he announced the Methodist Church would apply to a court for their removal from the Central Methodist Mission due to the health and fire risk of the large group living in it.
“He opened the door for us, and he has been through a lot,” added Bukuru. “It is not a good time for him. He was even attacked.”
Find a solution
But, she hoped that his heart would be touched to continue helping them, and the greater Methodist Church would find a solution for them.
She said the bottom line was the group did not have houses to return to.
The group split over the December/January period, and one, which lived outside and was moved in terms of by-law enforcement, is still living on pavements near the Cape Town Central police station.
They were issued fines for by-law violations and if they do not pay them they could be arrested.
The police have been reluctant to get involved after the controversy of removing them last October.
A similar conundrum is occurring at the Mamelodi Baptist Church where 60 people displaced by floods are sheltering.
The church was closed for a deep clean, and the group would be moved to the creche facility in the meantime.
Meanwhile, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi issued an appeal last week that countries should not forget their obligations to refugees and asylum seekers, as borders close and travel was restricted.
“Solutions exist,” said Grandi in a statement.
“If health risks are identified, screening arrangements can be put in place, together with testing, quarantine and other measures. These will enable authorities to manage the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees in a safe manner, while respecting international refugee protection standards designed to save lives.
“In these challenging times, let us not forget those who are fleeing war and persecution. They need – we all need – solidarity and compassion now more than ever before.”
The UNHCR has made it clear that it will not relocate the group as demanded. They have lived in or near the church since last October.