Mail & Guardian/Sapa, 12 June 2008

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The city of Cape Town says it is to hold a workshop on Friday with officials from the Western Cape provincial administration and the United Nations in a bid to find solutions to the city's refugee crisis. The announcement follows the province's decision earlier in the day to back down on its high court bid to force the city to accommodate xenophobia refugees at community halls rather than in special camps. "The city's successful bid to repel the province's interdict leaves the way free for the parties to negotiate in good faith," the city said in a statement afterwards. As the lawyers were appearing in court, about 150 refugees, who had at one point been sleeping on the pavement outside the Caledon Square police station, occupied the civic centre demanding accommodation in community halls in "white" areas, rather than townships. They also pleaded for UN intervention. The civic centre houses the bulk of the city's bureaucracy, the council chamber, and the office of mayor Helen Zille. The refugees were supported by members of the Treatment Action Campaign, including former chairperson Zackie Achmat. "We [are] going to sleep here until we get an answer. We have nowhere else to be," said their spokesperson, Congolese Victoire Ngoy. They were on Thursday evening preparing to bed down for the night after city housing director Hans Smit told them about Friday's workshop, and said the city was addressing issues they had raised in memorandums to the city and province. Smit said they would not be evicted from the civic centre, but that if they left they would not be readmitted. Friday's meeting will include representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the police and officials from the Department of Home Affairs. The province and city had been at loggerheads over the city's decision to house most refugees in five camps, rather than in community halls. The province said refugees needed to be close to the communities they fled from for reintegration to take place; the city maintained it could not properly service the refugees at scattered locations. It also said the province should throw open facilities such as disused schools under its control. Premier Ebrahim Rasool was on Monday night granted an interim high court order obliging the city to open up 18 community halls to displaced victims of xenophobia. However legal teams for province and city appeared before acting Cape Judge President Jeanette Traverso on Thursday morning, where counsel for the province announced that the parties had "reached agreement" and the application was being withdrawn. Each side would pay its own costs. Head of provincial disaster management Hildegard Fast said afterwards that city and provincial officials would sit down and talk about "a solution that is best for the displaced people and best for the city and province also". "We are most certainly committed to finding a solution," she said. The city said after the court order was issued that 15 of the 18 community halls listed in the order were in fact already housing refugees. It also said the province had ignored the Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act by not exhausting the possibility of cooperation with the city before going to court.