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South Africa: Civil society condemns situation at Jo'burg church

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JOHANNESBURG - Civil society organisations on Tuesday said the situation at Johannesburg's Central Methodist Church where thousands of migrants, most of them Zimbabweans, have taken shelter was unsustainable because of health risks.

"The present situation that faces those living in the church is not sustainable," a statement signed by more than 30 civil society organisations said.

Aids Law Project director Mark Heywood, reading from the statement said the situation had become untenable because of health risks posed by overcrowding.

The situation was made worse in July with the arrests of over 300 people sleeping on the streets around the church, resulting in more people moving inside to run away from the police, Heywood said.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the Treatment Action Campaign are some of the organizations that signed the statement.

SACC general secretary Eddie Makue labelled the overcrowding at the church as a "shame" for the country and said South Africans should apologise for the way their marginalised had been treated.

"We are ashamed by the overcrowding here because if we were responsive to your needs you would not have overcrowding here," he said. "We are deeply concerned that the human dignity of people is being trampled on the way it has been with the people of the church."

But Heywood ruled out closing the church because that would not solve the problems of the people sheltering in it but merely transfer them to another place where they could be in greater danger.

"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," he said.

The Johannesburg church offers refuge to more than 3 000 immigrants from across Africa with the bulk of them Zimbabweans who continue to flock to the sanctuary, fleeing their home country because of hunger and economic hardships.

The church reportedly receives up to 200 new arrivals from Zimbabwe per week with the formation of a unity government between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai last February appearing to have done little to stem the tide of Zimbabweans crossing the border to seek food and better opportunities in their more prosperous southern neighbour.