Zimbabwean teenage asylum-seeker learns the high cost of freedom

News Stories, 17 December 2009

© UNHCR/Zalmaï
The week-old baby she holds is the price 17-year-old Tsitsi Makwiyana paid for fleeing Zimbabwe in search of a better life. The South African truck drivers who helped her flee also raped her and left her pregnant, says the asylum-seeker in Makhado, South Africa. 'Now I must think about the baby.'

MAKHADO, South Africa, December 17 (UNHCR) When 18-year-old Tsitsi Makwiyena looks down at her son Desmond in her arms, she sees not just a one-week-old perfect baby boy, but also the high price she paid to escape her home country of Zimbabwe and start a new life in urban South Africa.

With a family too poor to let her finish high school, the girl, then just 17, decided to head to South Africa last year in search of a better life and a chance at further education. She and two older women managed to get a ride with some South Africans driving a truck from her impoverished homeland back to South Africa.

At the famous Beit Bridge crossing, the driver promised, they, like so many others, would be able to sneak across a weak link in the border fence to enter South Africa illegally.

But then things went horribly wrong. Arriving at night, the truckers pulled over on the Zimbabwe side of the bridge, raped the women one by one and left them by the side of the road. Bleeding and in unimaginable pain, Tsitsi and the other women staggered around looking for help but no one would come to their aid.

Somehow they managed to walk across the border into South Africa and apply for asylum documents in the border town of Musina. Tsitsi then made her way to Makhado, about 100 kilometres further inland.

In Makhado she realized she was pregnant. Rejecting her first impulse to get an abortion, she received medical care and all-important counselling at a South Africa hospital the only reason she's able to tell her story in a calm voice today.

"Before the counselling, whenever I thought about what had happened to me I would just cry," Tsitsi confides to a UNHCR officer, after all the men are out of earshot. "I could not say what happened without crying. Now I am better. Besides, I can't think about what happened because now I must think about the baby."

No longer a schoolgirl, she has had to grow up in a hurry. One thing she hasn't had the nerve to do, though, is tell her family back in Zimbabwe how her venture to South Africa has turned out.

"I have heard this has happened to many Zimbabwean girls," she says. "Then they don't tell their mothers about the baby. I think if I told my mother, she would not be happy but she would accept us."

Makhado, strung out along the highway that runs from the border to Johannesburg, almost looks like a small town in the United States, with its strip mall and fast-food restaurants.

But that's not Tsitsi's Makhado hers is around the corner and down a small track to a tiny, dingy room built in the backyard of another house. She rents the room from an older woman from Zimbabwe, along with other tenants, mostly asylum-seekers transiting through Makhado on their way to Johannesburg.

Some 10 or 12 other people live there, mainly single men, and they all cook and do their laundry outdoors. Despite the grim surroundings, with the new responsibility for her young son, Tsitsi is determined to make a go of it in South Africa. "I will stay here in Makhado," she says resolutely, "and look for work."

Thousands of other foreigners, including refugees and asylum-seekers, are also struggling to get by in urban sprawls like Makhado. South African's generous law allows asylum-seekers and refugees to enjoy many benefits, including education and employment, but it is a hard life for most.

By Tina Ghelli in Makhado, South Africa




UNHCR country pages

Urban Refugees

More than half the refugees UNHCR serves now live in urban areas

South Africa's Invisible People

In March 2011, UNHCR initiated a project with the South African non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), to tackle the issue of statelessness. The specific goals of the project were to provide direct legal services to stateless people and those at risk of statelessness; to engage government on the need for legal reform to prevent and reduce statelessness; to raise awareness about stateless people and their rights; and to advocate for the ratification of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness.

LHR had conceived the project a year earlier after noticing that large numbers of Zimbabwean-born asylum-seekers were telling its staff that they faced problems getting jobs, studying or setting up businesses - all allowed under South African law. They told LHR that when they applied for Zimbabwean passports, necessary to access these rights, they were informed by consular officials that they were no longer recognized as Zimbabwean citizens. This effectively made them stateless.

Since the project's inception, LHR has reached more than 2,000 people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. These people came from more than 20 different countries. It has identified numerous categories of concern in South Africa, both migrants and those born in the country.

The following photo set portrays some of the people who have been, or are being, helped by the project. The portraits were taken by photographer Daniel Boshoff. Some of the subjects asked that their names be changed.

South Africa's Invisible People

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa where registered refugees and asylum-seekers can legally move about freely, access social services and compete with locals for jobs.

But while these right are enshrined in law, in practice they are sometimes ignored and refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves turned away by employers or competing with the poorest locals for the worst jobs - especially in the last few years, as millions have fled political and economic woes in countries like Zimbabwe. The global economic downturn has not helped.

Over the last decade, when times turned tough, refugees in towns and cities sometimes became the target of the frustrations of locals. In May 2008, xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other parts of the country, killing more than 60 people and displacing about 100,000 others.

In Atteridgeville, on the edge of the capital city of Pretoria - and site of some of the worst violence - South African and Somali traders, assisted by UNHCR, negotiated a detailed agreement to settle the original trade dispute that led to the torching of Somali-run shops. The UN refugee agency also supports work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to counter xenophobia.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South AfricaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South Africa

Living in Pretoria as a refugee or asylum-seeker is challenging. Most either live rough on the streets or in cramped apartments in townships. There are also tensions with locals because of the perception that foreigners get a better deal than South African citizens.
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Top business partners renew support

Executives from Manpower, Young & Rubicam, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Microsoft visit UNHCR operations in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia.
Zimbabweans in South AfricaPlay video

Zimbabweans in South Africa

While Zimbabwe's main political rivals have agreed to hold power-sharing talks, there are continued reports of instability and violence in the country. The flow of Zimbabweans seeking asylum in neigbouring South Africa is growing, rather than ebbing. The UN refugee agency reports that there are more and more women and children joining the exodus.