Refugee situation in Cape Town: stakeholder engagement; with Minister and Deputy Minister

Home Affairs

20 October 2020
Chairperson: Adv B Bongo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

In a virtual meeting, the Committee met to receive briefings by the Department of Home Affairs, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC), the City of Cape Town, and the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), present on issues of integration, and refugee repatriation, in the City of Cape Town. This follows a meeting in March where the Committee gave the entities 30 days to integrate hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers back into the local communities they were residing in before their occupation of the City centre protesting against xenophobia. Those who refused to be reintegrated should be sent back to their countries of origin, the Committee said. This was just days before the President declared the state of disaster and the imposition of the lockdown. The two groups of refugees and asylum seekers were forcefully removed by the police from the Central Methodist Church and outside the Cape Town central police station at the beginning of the lockdown in April and taken to two temporary shelters outside the Wingfield Military Base in Goodwood and in Paint City, Bellville. The shelters were established under Covid-19 regulations.

The UNHRC highlighted the basic principles of the protection of refugees, and the activities in place during COVID-19 to address the issue of refugees in Cape Town.

The SAHRC discussed temporary shelter, and relocation sites provided for refugees in Cape Town. It told the Committee that the three biggest challenges at the two sites were access control as both sites are not controlled, health assessments of the two populations and the question around their documentation were required

The City of Cape Town highlighted the challenges faced by the City regarding refugee protests, and the relocation of the refugees to shelters. The City claimed it had fulfilled its responsibility to the refugees as much as it could, saying the Department of Home Affairs was ultimately responsible for what happened to refugees as refugees and asylum seekers do not fall under the constitutional schedules which deal with the mandate of local government

The Department of Home Affairs presented on the national state of disaster which was declared, and the progress report on the situation of migrants, including the removal of refugees in Cape Town. The Department told the Committee that it was formulating a exit strategy but the national state of disaster has had a significant impact on the Department’s plan

Members raised concerns on the worsening conditions of refugees and asylum seekers in the Cape Town temporary refugee shelters, especially the impact these shelters have on the surrounding communities; and questioned the implementation progress of the action plan to address refugee issues. The integration and deportation processes were also questioned by members.

The Committee said the Constitution must be adhered to, and encouraged the Department to provide assistance to refugees and asylum seekers, especially in providing documentation.

Overall, the Committee appreciated the SAHRC and the UNHCR for providing clarity on the issues of refugees in Cape Town, but criticised the City of Cape Town for not doing enough to support refugees.

The Committee decided on an oversight visit to the City of Cape Town, to evaluate the progress with assisting refugees and the condition of temporary shelters and ensure the exit plan is implemented.

Meeting report

The Chairperson welcomed everyone and said the Committee will deal with the BIII process, where Annual Performance Plans will be presented. On the matter discussed in March, protesters have to be profiled, reintegrated into society, and back to home countries. The Committee must hold the Executive accountable and guide processes, to ensure the Constitution is properly implemented and applied, especially Chapter Three of the Constitution. Co-operation must be ensured across all the different spheres of government to achieve the objective of the Constitution.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC)

Mr Jesus Sanchez, Senior Protection Officer (Community-Based Protection) Child Protection, UNHRC, presented the mandate and main functions of the UNHRC, as well as the fundamental principles of international protection. He highlighted Article 35 of the 1951 United Nations (UN) Convention, the perspectives of the UNHRC, the activities of the UNHRC, as well as the COVID-19 response plans.

The UNHCR recently met with the Office of the Premiers for both WC and KZN to strengthen relations and identify areas of collaboration on refugee related matters and the UNHCR collaborates with the National Disaster Management Centre on many fronts. There are ongoing monthly meetings (WC and Gauteng) are held with refugee leaders from various communities to remind them of rights and duties and to discuss protection issues. UNHCR Partners and Refugee leaders have and continue to distribute food parcels in various communities to both locals and non-national as a show of solidarity in the fight against COVID-19. There is UNHCR- funded a social cohesion project in the Western Cape through its partner to manufacture PPE equipment and distribute to refugees and local populations in under resourced communities and townships in a show of solidarity to high risk communities i.e. Khayelitsha (directly funded by UNHCR), Gugulethu, Nyanga, Phillipi, Cross Roads and Weltevreden (Samora Machel) -10 000 face cloth masks have been distributed in Khayelitsha alone. Together with South Africans, refugees who produced PPE equipment, addressed communities about risk communications and health messaging, strengthening solidarity and peacebuilding during distribution campaigns

Regarding COVID19, the UNHRC appreciates government’s public health care inclusion and access for persons of concern and access to state services and social grants. More than 30 000 persons of concern were assisted with emergency support during the pandemic. There is good coordination between all stakeholders and refugee and asylum-seeker communities. There is a need for strong social cohesion and risk communication, strengthened community engagement

South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC)

Mr Ghalib Galant, Project Leader, Provincial Facilitation Office, Synergy Works, gave a timeline of the events which happened from September 2019 to July 2020, and the temporary shelter regulations under COVID-19 in Wingfield and Paint City. He outlined the roadmap to local integration and the voluntary repatriation roadmap.

In Wingfield, there are currently 700 people on Department of Public Works land bordering a military base. Originally, around 400 people (including children) were moved. This has put a strain on the resources allocated to the site. There is a local informal settlement in the vicinity. The City of Cape Town (COCT) provides tents, water, showers and electricity. There is law enforcement capacity outside the facility. There is food provision and some education needs are provides by community groupings

In Paint City Bellville, there are approx. 900 people and the population has increased significantly.  There are adjacent homeless temporary shelters and the location is under resident site management. There is a lack of clarity over whose responsibility the site is and the the CoCT has had very little engagement with refugee site. Food provision is provided by community groups. Assessments, on principle, have been refused at the site. Unlike the group in Wingfield, the group in Paint City has not been assessed – not for documentation, not for health conditions, not for risk factors and not for integration. They do screen visitors to the site. The rather cramped conditions – worsened by the increase in numbers – makes social distancing very difficult. This group has been the most consistent in their demand for resettlement to a third country, pursuing this option persistently and aggressively

Two exit plans were presented to the Committee, as well as the three priority issues which need to be addressed before evacuations can take place in Wingfield and Paint City. It includes stabilisation, assessment/verification, and evacuation. Essentially the two options were local integration or local integration back home – the dynamics around the exit were discussed.

City of Cape Town

Ms Antoinette Markram, Principal Legal Advisor: City of Cape Town, presented on the commitments made regarding the refugee situation, and outlined the Refugees Act. The refugee relocation plan was set out, and the challenges and the dangerous consequences faced in the relocation sites such as Bellville were noted. This includes issues of congestion and traffic.

Ms Markram discussed a statement in the ‘Countdown to Closure’, and the proposed plan by the SAHRC for the relocation sites.

Refugees are managed in terms of the Refugees Act. The refugees therefore fall within the mandate of the Minister of Home Affairs; not local government mandates.

The City’s limited participation at Wingfield, including the ongoing cost it is incurring in relation to the marquis tents and amenities, was premised on the commitment made by Minister Motsoaledi, in terms of which he stated that persons housed in the current shelter facilities at Wingfield in terms of the Disaster Management Act COVID-19 regulations would after the lockdown, either:

-voluntarily reintegrate by returning to the communities they communities where they were residing in October 2019 before they took up occupation of the UNHCR offices, or some other accommodation facilities arranged by themselves; or

-DHA would repatriate them to their country of origin.

In Paint City, COCT was opposed to the relocation of those from the Methodist Church on Greenmarket Square, to the parking area adjacent to the Safe Space shelter at the former paint City building in Bellville. Notwithstanding the City indicating the risks and consequences associated with such a move, the refugees and asylum seekers were move by South African Police Services (SAPS) to tents erected by DPW. This has created a crisis due to these facilities occupying the parking required by the minibus taxis that operate from Bellville PTI, for ranking purposes. Creating severe congestion, traffic chaos as well as serious injuries to persons due to violence that resulted from the relocation of the minibus taxis to Belrail. This situation requires urgent resolution as the current crisis is requiring daily and continuous resources from CoCT Traffic Department to manage the problems created.

Regarding the exit plan, the City is participating with other stakeholders in process in relation to the reintegration of the foreign nationals. The City’s participation in this process is guided by its constitutional mandate and applicable legislation.

Mr JP Smith, MayCo Member for Safety and Security, City of Cape Town, said the COCT is willing to provide assistance to the Department of Home Affairs with the refugee situation in Cape Town, and delivering outcomes, which have become costly to implement during the lockdown. Meetings were postponed because of the absence of the SAPS representatives.

Department of Home Affairs

Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Minister of Home Affairs, outlined the purpose of the presentation, the background, as well as the declaration of the national state of disaster. The Minister pointed out the outcomes of the Department’s meeting with the Premier of the Western Cape, the Executive Mayor of the City of Cape Town, and the Member of Executive Council (MEC) of Human Settlements. He also highlighted the role of SAPS in removing asylum seekers and refugees. The situation of life at Paint City was outlined, as well as the handover of the Paint City site.

The Minister discussed the Integration Plan and the deportation of refugees to countries of origin, if necessary, by verifying if the refugees qualify for deportation.

The Chairperson said Section 40 of the Constitution provides for the inter-relation and interdependence of the different spheres of government. The manner the issue of refugees will be resolved should align with the Constitution. 


Mr T Mgcini (EFF) asked about the processes and procedures involved when asylum seekers enter the country, especially since the process is not well understood by many. The incidents of removals in Cape Town are not surprising because the City of Cape Town has always forcefully removed black people. He said the SAHRC is moving at a slow pace to ensure human rights during removals in Cape Town, and the Committee oversight must be conducted to ensure people’s conditions are good, especially for women and children. Humane solutions must be implemented in addressing the issues. Everyone must be accepted and not discriminated against based on country of origin.

Mr M Lekota (COPE) said the law of the country is not racial, and people who enter the country should enter legally. Solutions must be guided by the Constitution, and people who are deported should be sent back to the country of origin by making the necessary arrangements. Home Affairs should not be responsible for dealing with the issue of repatriating people, and the relevant Departments must provide assistance.

Mr A Roos (DA) said it is unfair for the Committee to judge stakeholders on how the issue of refugees is handled, because it is the responsibility of government. The government should draft risk analysis and plans to address the issues. He asked the Minister if there is a law protecting refugees and asylum seekers from attacks, and if municipalities are equipped to address the issues refugees and asylum seekers face in communities. A solution which involves all stakeholders must be drafted. He asked the UNHCR how the gender and race-based attacks on refugees are addressed in other countries, so the same strategy can be applied in South Africa.  He asked the Minister about the requirements which make a deportation legal; and the number of cases, as well as the steps being taken by the Department to finalise the cases of refugees and asylum seekers.  He also asked how long the cases will take to finalise.

On voluntary integration, he said the national action plan was initiated by Cabinet to ensure investigations take place where xenophobic attacks were reported. He asked about the progress of this action plan, and if investigations are taking place.

The Department needs to show great leadership, not just talk about it. On the COVID reports, he said the issue of citizens being unable to get letters proving South African citizenship is concerning.

He asked why, and when, the service will be available.

Home Affairs offices are being closed around the country because servers are down.

He asked for investigations to be held to ensure the offices are functional.

On the list of countries which are high risk, he said it has a huge impact on the economy, especially the tourism sector. Travelers are not allowed into the country even if travelers test negative for COVID-19.

Ms M Molekwa (ANC) thanked the presenters, and said the Department of Home Affairs presentation provided clarity on some issues. She asked the City of Cape Town if there is an alternative accommodation plan for refugees since level one of the lockdown.  She asked the Minister on the deportation process, and asked how soon the process can be initiated and implemented if there is a rejection.

Ms L Tito (EFF) welcomed the presentations and asked if the Department of Home Affairs provided assistance to migrants to obtain emergency documents to enable access to the social relief grant during the lockdown.

Ms A Khanyile (DA) welcomed the presentation, and said the oversight scheduled to happen before the lockdown should still take place. The committee oversight over the Desmond Tutu Refugee Centre gave the impression immigration is a national competency. During an oversight visit, the Committee and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) in Gauteng discussed the issues of immigration which the Minister did not provide feedback on.

Although some of the leaders in the City of Johannesburg are not in the same positions, the issues are still ongoing.

She asked what the Minister did to intervene in Johannesburg when the issues were raised. The Department of Home Affairs presentation highlighted the roles and responsibilities of officials, and the refugee accommodation issue in the City of Cape Town, which is costly considering the increasing number of refugees. She said asked who is responsible for the finances of the City of Cape Town.  

Mr J McGluwa (DA) referred to the intention of the Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act, and said the issue of migrants has become a political game instead of a cooperative decision-making process.  He has previously raised concerns of meeting minutes. He requested minutes from different stakeholders to ensure stakeholders and departments are held accountable for roles in attempting to resolve the issues.

He agreed with Mr Roos on the Committee’s responsibility, and the Department playing the lead role in addressing the issues. He said multiple meetings were held where the Department of Home Affairs was not present and SAPS was present.  He asked why the Department was absent from these meetings. He applauded the Minister for the resolution on implementing voluntary integration and repatriation strategies. He raised concerns with the Wingfield congestion issues, and asked if there are any expenditure plans for increasing numbers.

Ms L van der Merwe (IFP) said laws must be complied with by everyone, and the issue being discussed was ongoing for too long. It should have been resolved. The Department and the City of Cape Town must stop pointing fingers at each other and should work together. She said there is no compliance with COVID-19 regulations at the refugee facilities, and noted concerns on increasing numbers of people at the refugee facilities. She asked if the origin of the additional people in the shelters are known, and asked why access controls through SAPS were not implemented.

She also asked for a breakdown of the sustained costs involved in the refugee sites in Cape Town.

She said since it is known the refugees at Bellville do not wish to be integrated into society, she asked how far the process of repatriating these refugees is, and what the action plan is to ensure the law is not violated by these refugees.

She highlighted what Mr Smith said, namely, representatives are absent when meetings are held. She asked why there was no attendance.

On the verification of asylum seekers, she asked why the process is not finalised, and requested the action plan of the Department in addressing the issues with specific timeframes.

Mr M Chabane (ANC) said the court judgement clearly outlined the roles and responsibilities of individuals, in resolving the issue of refugees by either deporting, or integration. The Department of Home Affairs and the City of Cape Town should have prioritised the resolutions and execution of action plans.

He appreciated the SAHRC and UNHCR for engaging and contributing to the issue. He said foreign nationals in the northern provinces respect and comply with South African laws, and municipal laws. It seems to be different with foreign national living in the cities.

The SAHRC and UNHCR must determine when foreign nationals disrespect the South African Constitution and deportation is to take place. The City of Cape Town is not complying with the court ruling regarding the bi-laws.  The process of deportation must be identified and presented to the Committee by the Minister, as an official who presides over the law. Institutions must not undermine the system. He asked the SAHRC for the status of the economic activity in the communities where there are foreign nationals. Oversight must be conducted with stakeholders to better understand the issues raised, and determine intervention plans in addressing the issues. Authority must be implemented in the Department of Home Affairs and the City of Cape Town, to ensure issues are addressed.

The Chairperson said the Committee must conduct oversight collectively to ensure there is compliance, and the Constitution is adhered to. This is especially so when foreign nations come to South Africa and expect to be deported to other countries besides the country of origin.



Mr Sanchez said UNHCR continues to support local international organizations. There will be continued engagements on the issue. There are programmes which will assist with the refugee appeals. The UNHCR is willing to assist the refugees with repatriation documents while ensuring the process is safe and compliant. The UNHCR will continue to assist with the integration of refugees. There have been meetings on how the issue will be resolved, and there has been awareness raised on the issue.


Mr Chris Nissen, Commissioner: SAHRC, said many refugees, and some leaders, did not want to be integrated into society. Complaints from refugees were received, and are being dealt with accordingly.

Mr Galant said the SAHRC has a plan in place, and has been supported by the major stakeholders. The issue of refugees needs to be resolved, and the Department of Home Affairs needs to provide documentation for the migrants. The integration of the migrants involves various Departments and stakeholders. The issue needs a holistic government approach as well as integration with society.

City of Cape Town

Mr Smith said the City of Cape Town took the necessary steps to ensure COVID-19 regulations are being complied with in the refugee shelters. The City incurred costs in ensuring this. The City Manager responded on the legislative responsibility of the issue of refugees in Cape Town. He said no legal mandate or obligation was identified by the Department of Public Works or National Treasury, for the City of Cape Town to address the issue of refugees.

The Department of Home Affairs should engage with the City of Cape Town on the costs involved, in trying to address the issue of sanitation in refugee shelters. Attacks on city officials by Parliament, is not progressive in establishing co-ordination and good relations to address the issues in Cape Town.

The absence of the Department of Home Affairs in the meetings held by the City to execute the exit plan is worrying. Special access to services by refugees must be authorised by the Department of Home Affairs, not the City of Cape Town. Oversight will not resolve the issue of access to resources by refugees.

A notice was sent to the Department of Home Affairs on the violation of regulations and bi-laws. Regarding forceful removals, he said the removals are not political, but received support from other political parties. All racial groups are considered in respect of individual human rights.

Department of Home Affairs

Mr Yusuf Simons, Provincial Manager of the Western Cape, Department of Home Affairs, said an attendance register was signed at the City of Cape Town meetings. It was signed by attendees, including representatives of the Department of Home Affairs. Exit plan meetings were all attended by Home Affairs representatives.

The Minister said it is irrational for the Committee and the UNHCR to provide a deportation process to the Department. Deportations happen every week. The UNHCR was only requested to provide deportation process for refugees with asylum status in the country, those who want to be repatriated to Canada and those who do not want to be integrated into society.

On the issue of leadership, the Minister said instructions and meetings were initiated by the Minister, together with the Premier. The only thing which cannot be initiated by the Minister are the bi-laws and issues of accommodation, and sanitation, because South Africa does not have refugee camps.

The Minister said there is good collaboration with the Premier of the Western Cape. On the action plan, the Minister said an action plan needs to be implemented, and meetings are being attended by the Western Cape Home Affairs Department to implement the plan.

The Chairperson said the rules of municipalities, and the Department, were clearly outlined by the Court. The Constitution should not be undermined. The decision to reintegrate and deport migrants still stands.

The Chairperson thanked the SAHRC and the UNHCR for providing clarity on some of the issues, and said an oversight visit to the City of Cape Town will be conducted to ensure accountability. The information presented has to be verified.

The Chairperson thanked the Department of Home Affairs, Members, UNHCR, SAHRC, and the City of Cape Town, for attending the meeting and for engagements.

The meeting was adjourned. 


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