Protect dignity, health and human rights!

We commend the selfless intervention of Bishop Paul Verryn and his colleagues at the CMC who, for several years, have responded to the refugee crisis with compassion and kindness. They have recognized that the people fleeing Zimbabwe are human beings in need of comfort and protection. Bishop Verryn and others have responded in the spirit called for from all of us by our Constitution.

In keeping with its mission, the church has not closed its doors to those in need. Instead it offers people protection from xenophobia and from harassment by some members of the police; it gives people a sense of community when they are far away from home. It has also been able to provide people with networks that have linked them to health care services, skills development, educational opportunities, recreation and work.

However, the present situation that faces those living in the church is not sustainable.

The overcrowding of the church presents a health risk particularly for infectious diseases such as TB. This problem was compounded when the arbitrary and violent arrests in July of over 300 persons who were sleeping in streets around the vicinity of the CMC resulted in greater numbers seeking shelter within the church at night.

We also recognize that the many children at the church, both unaccompanied minors, as well as the children with parents, are often at risk. And despite the best efforts of the church leadership, those committed to their care are often living in conditions that may not be in their best interests.

In this context we welcome the recent expressions of concern about conditions at the church, including those by the Gauteng Portfolio Committee on Health and Social Development. But we urge against arbitrary evictions or unfair processes, which will only deepen the plight of vulnerable and homeless people.

We call for a solution that respects everybody’s dignity and offers some permanent alternative of accommodation and care. Bishop Verryn and the CMC have been calling for such an intervention by government for several years.

If the Church were to be closed – as has been threatened — the people who need its support would not miraculously evaporate, and neither would the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe. Refugees would be dispersed and forced underground into places where they would be less accessible and in greater danger of health and human rights violations.

For these reasons we call on the government of South Africa to provide alternative accommodation and social assistance for the persons seeking sanctuary at the church

We call on the national Minister of Social Development to establish a task team with full time staff, clear terms of reference and timeframes to try to find suitable alternative accommodation, prioritizing those people who are most vulnerable. The task team must include representatives from the migrant and refugee committee. It is also important that there is independent oversight of this process to ensure that people, particularly children, are protected.

We also call on the Minister of Home Affairs to call for tolerance and lead a national dialogue about how to best assist Zimbabwean migrants who are in South Africa.

Finally, we feel that it is important to recognize that the conditions at the church are linked to an influx of Zimbabwean migrants brought about partly by a failure of the South African government and SADC to take a firm stand against the actions of President Robert Mugabe.

In this respect we believe that there can be no meaningful solution to the crisis at the CMC unless the South African government actively engages the Zimbabwean government and international community. We must insist that the rights of all those living in Zimbabwe are upheld and respected and that there is an end to police brutality. The redevelopment of the Zimbabwean economy would begin to offer a solution to the starvation and hopelessness that results from the economic and social crisis.

For these reasons, we welcome the appointment of Charles Nqakula, Mac Maharaj and Lindiwe Zulu as South Africa’s new mediators in Zimbabwe and hope that they will assist in securing a lasting solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe. We call on all South Africans to respond to the plight of Zimbabweans who have fled their nation with compassion and respect for human rights.

This statement was initiated by the AIDS Law Project, Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Resources Centre. It is endorsed by:

AIDS Consortium; Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC);    Amnesty International (South Africa);    Centre for Human Rights;    Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR);    Coalition of African Lesbians;   Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA);  Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU);   Cross Over Project;   Dr JL Rawlinson;    Durban Lesbian and Gay Community Health Centre;    Equal Education;    Feminist Forum;   Gay and Lesbian Equality Project (LGEP);   Gender Dynamix;   Gender Equality Unit, University of the Western Cape;    Human Rights Watch (South Africa);    Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM);    Islamic Relief;   Jesuit Refugee Service;   Justice and Women (JAW);      Mosaic Training, Service & Healing Centre for Women;   Out in Africa;   People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP);   Safety and Security SETA (SASSETA);    Rainbow UCT;   Rural Health Advocacy Project (RHAP);   SA HIV Clinicians Society (SAHIVCS);   Social Justice Coalition;   South African Council of Churches (SACC);   South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU);   Treatment Action Campaign (TAC);   Triangle Project;   Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE);   Tshwane Leadership Foundation.