Mail & Guardian/Sapa, 10 June 2008

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The city of Cape Town says it will fight a High Court order that it open up community halls to foreign nationals displaced by last month's xenophobic violence. It says it wants the Western Cape provincial administration to first use facilities under its own control, and that community halls are not the best way to accommodate the refugees. Acting judge Pakama Ngewu issued the interim order on Monday night, following an urgent application by Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool. Ngewu also interdicted the city's metro police from preventing displaced foreigners from leaving the Soetwater camp or any other camp they were currently living in. Following last month's xenophobic attacks, the city opened a number of community halls to displaced foreign nationals. However it moved thousands of them into six camps, the largest at Soetwater, a beach resort on the Atlantic coast. Mayoral spokesperson Robert Macdonald said on Tuesday that the city would oppose the order. He also rejected the suggestion that the metro police were stopping people moving out of the camps. "Displaced people are free to move in and out at all times," he said. "Under no circumstances have we ever tried to control their movements." He said 15 of the 18 community halls listed in the court order were in fact already open to and housing refugees, and had been open since the day the violence began. Rasool's application came after a bid by the province earlier on Monday night to relocate some of the Soetwater refugees who reportedly feared for their safety after acts of violence by their fellows. A busload of Soetwater refugees was turned away by city officials from a community hall in the Samora Machel informal settlement late Monday night. The group was eventually given shelter at a youth centre in Tokai. On Monday the city's housing director Hans Smit told the province, in response to a request for community halls to be opened, that the city believed the province should first make use of its own facilities. "These could include empty schools, hangars at the Wingfield military base, Fort Ikapa and public works venues," Smit said. "We will reconsider your request once these provincial options have been implemented." Macdonald said on Tuesday that continued use of the city's community halls did not take into account broader public interest. "We need to keep community halls open in the event of other disasters such as flooding," he said. "Last winter we had 35 000 people affected by flooding, and many people had to be temporarily accommodated in community halls. "We've also pointed out that in some cases, accommodating foreign nationals in halls risks increasing tensions in communities." Two south peninsula ward councillors and the chairperson of a local community forum on Tuesday joined in condemning the provincial government's handling of the Soetwater refugees. Councillors Nicki Holderness and Felicity Purchase, and Far South Peninsula Community Forum chairperson Simon Liell-Cock, said the officials' attempt to move the refugees on Monday night had been "clumsy". "While the intent may have been to put an end to the intimidation of residents of the lower camp by aggressive elements in the upper camp, the manner in which it was attempted was most ill-advised," they said. "The way to relieve intimidation is not with yet more intimidation." They said neither refugee leaders, camp management nor city officials were informed of the decision to move refugees on Monday night. Soetwater was in the news earlier this week when a false report that several Somali refugees had committed suicide by drowning themselves in the sea triggered a major search by rescuers. The judge has set June 18 as the return date for the order.