Officials in South Africa are trying to address a looming crisis caused by an influx of refugees, mostly from Zimbabwe, living in and around a church in downtown Johannesburg. Humanitarian workers say the situation is inhumane while local businessmen are threatening legal action.
Officials from the city, province and national governments were meeting Friday to try to address the plight of thousands of displaced people living in Johannesburg's downtown commercial district.
An estimated 4,000 displaced, mostly from Zimbabwe, spend their days on the sidewalks of the business district.
About 2,000 of them sleep in and around the Central Methodist Church. Others sleep in alleys and driveways near the church which works with humanitarian groups to provide them with food, clothing and some services.
The city of Johannesburg recently installed 20 portable toilets on a sidewalk outside the church and erected a fence around the grounds. Local businessmen complain the human tragedy is driving away their clients.
The head of the church, Bishop Paul Verryn, says he is not surprised at the anger over the presence of so many people with little more than the clothes on their backs. But he says a new mindset is needed on the part of their hosts.
"The people who need help are not cockroaches and pests that we need to exterminate as quickly as we possibly can," said Verryn. "In many cases, they are very, very vulnerable human beings. And any sane-thinking human being must see that first."
The number of displaced people at the church rose dramatically recently with the arrival of refugees from the border town of Musina. The South African government last week closed a refugee registration center there citing the deplorable living conditions at a camp around the center.
Humanitarian groups working at the camp acknowledged conditions were poor but said closing the facility only moved the problem elsewhere.
A spokesman for Johannesburg's Gauteng Province, Themba Sepotokele, told national radio that the businessmen and the humanitarian groups have a valid complaint.
"The city is trying to find accommodation for those people but the numbers are increasing so it is going to be difficult to house them," he said. "And hence we have to find a kind of humanitarian-integrated approach to this humanitarian crisis."
He says officials of the city, provincial and national governments plan to meet with donor groups soon to work out a joint solution to the problem.
Verryn recommends finding a building in the area. He hopes it would be large enough to house all of the displaced people and also have room for a training center to help them find decent jobs.
Local officials say there are abandoned buildings in depressed parts of downtown Johannesburg. But a major problem will be finding the funds to renovate one of them.
Verryn says his church has some experience in working with the displaced but others must come forward.
"We need adequate funding and we need people who will have the new dimension," he said. "And the expertise both from Zimbabwe and from South Africa is gigantic. Now we've got to find ways of engaging that expertise."
He says part of the problem is that some South Africans resent foreign immigrants believing that they take jobs and services away from poor South Africans.
He says if the government and donor community can alleviate poverty across society perhaps anti-foreigner feelings will subside.
But he adds that South Africa's political leaders must be clear that anyone who abuses these people should face the full force of the law.