Zimbabweans face uphill struggle in search for asylum in South Africa

News Stories, 11 July 2008

© UNHCR/J.Oatway
Through the Wire: At Musina on the South African border with Zimbabwe.

MUSINA, South Africa, July 11 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency said on Friday it was concerned that people fleeing political violence in Zimbabwe were not being properly screened at the South Africa border, raising fears that people with a genuine fear of persecution could be deported.

The number of Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa has risen considerably and so have their deportations since the holding of general and presidential elections in March. A subsequent crackdown on opposition supporters around Zimbabwe exacerbated the situation, which has further worsened since the presidential run-off in late June.

In the last 40 days alone, South Africa has sent back some 17,000 Zimbabweans through the Beit Bridge border post, despite earlier calls from UNHCR to suspend all deportations.

UNHCR, refugee advocacy groups and rights organizations say Zimbabweans who come to South Africa face an uphill struggle in their bid to obtain asylum. "The government should do more to help them, in line with its international legal commitments," said Sanda Kimbimbi, UNHCR's regional representative.

Of the 35,000 Zimbabweans who applied for asylum in South Africa in 2006 and 2007, only 500 were granted refugee status, according to official figures.

A further indication of the evolving refugee situation is the growing crowd of Zimbabweans around 3,000-4,000 approaching the Crown Mines Refugee Registration Office in Johannesburg each Thursday and Friday, the days set aside for Zimbabwean asylum seekers.

UNHCR has strengthened its presence at the border and its protection officers are making daily visits to a detention centre in Musina to identify Zimbabwean asylum seekers and refer them to the appropriate authorities.

"There are so many people who are deported on a daily basis, we are simply unable to interview 95 percent of them," said Camilla Kragelund, head of the UNHCR office in Musina. "The only Zimbabweans who are getting asylum are those who come into contact with UNHCR or our partners," she added.

Aid workers in the border towns are beginning to see a shift in the dynamics of Zimbabwean displacement. Whereas 90 percent of those crossing into South Africa in the past were young single men seeking a better economic future, increasingly the new arrivals consist of families fleeing political violence.

"The trend is changing, we are getting entire family units, many with physical injuries, seeking asylum," said Thandi Hadebe, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service's office in the town of Makhado (Louis Trichardt), south of the border. Since the start of June, the office has helped some 300-400 Zimbabweans a day.

In Musina, there is a visible presence of Zimbabweans in distressed circumstances. "There are many people in desperate need of assistance. Some arrive after days on the road, exhausted and famished," said Father Adrian McHugh, whose church provides food to new arrivals.

At the Roman Catholic Church in Nancefield, a neighbourhood of Musina, mothers and their children queue for food parcels. Many of the Zimbabweans have terrible stories to tell. "They speak of killings and beatings; they have brutal injuries, bruises, swollen legs and feet," said Debra Sibanda, a church worker.

The majority of Zimbabweans are entering South Africa through unauthorized border points. They have to evade security patrols and police checkpoints; fend off criminal gangs operating on the border, navigate the crocodile and hippo-infested Limpopo River; and cross barbed wire fences. Those who complete the journey remain fearful of arrest and deportation, and many go underground, making them vulnerable to rape and robbery.

In Campbell, a township near Musina, UNHCR teams met a mixed group of recently arrived Zimbabweans, many of them sleeping rough in the bush, with only a blanket or two to protect them from the cold winter weather. Many were students, such as Prosper, who took part in anti-government protests.

Police responded by harassing suspected ringleaders and opposition sympathizers. The student showed off deep cuts on his head and marks on his body that he alleged were inflicted by Zimbabwean police. "Things were getting tight and politically motivated attacks became the norm," he said.

Feeling threatened, he decided to flee to South Africa in late April with three other students. "We arrived at the border at night. We walked through the bush and crossed through the Limpopo River. It was risky and one of the students who was with us ... drowned." They were also robbed by bandits.

Meanwhile, High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has reiterated his call on South Africa to halt all deportations of Zimbabweans and ensure that those seeking asylum have access to national asylum procedures. UNHCR also urges South Africa to exceptionally grant Zimbabweans a temporary legal status allowing them to stay in the country, an option which is foreseen in national legislation.

There are presently more than 138,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa, coming from a wide range of countries. Zimbabweans have also sought refuge in other countries.

By Yusuf Hassan in Musina, South Africa