OVER 38 000 people have fled Zimbabwe for South Africa in the past four months seeking asylum, health care and job opportunities, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said this week.
HRW attributed the mass exodus to the country’s worsening social, economic and political crisis characterised by acute food shortages, the cholera epidemic and little prospects of earning a livelihood.
About five million people are in need of food aid, while over 2 200 have died from the waterborne disease since last August.
In a statement, HRW refugee policy director Bill Frelick said: “What we are seeing is significant numbers of Zimbabweans who are crossing into South Africa at the Musina crossing, in particular.
The numbers being registered are far in excess of what we saw in the last year, and people are in bad shape. Food and medicines have all been markedly reduced as a result of the combination of the economic implosion in Zimbabwe, which is traced to the political repression in the country.”
The procedural obstacles that expatriates find on the other side of the border often result in deportations — more than 250 000 people are sent back annually.
HRW said that many of the deportations of Zimbabweans fleeing political violence, forced evictions and economic destitution were avoidable.
It said South Africa’s asylum policy needlessly subjects applicants to stringent legal interpretations, and that considering the victims for temporary status rather than full-fledged political sanctuary would free up the system to help rescue those in dire need.
“What we are really doing is calling upon the South African government, which has already a pretty dysfunctional asylum system in terms of doing individual refugee status determinations, to basically say that this is a situation that calls for a temporary status that would basically put into effect a non-deportation policy for Zimbabweans and give them work authorisation,” Frelick said.
HRW claimed the South African absorption system was backlogged because of an inflexible approach to defining refugee status, which it said placed too much weight on Zimbabweans having to justify their flight in terms of political persecution.
Frelick said a more pragmatic approach would help unclog the pipeline and enable the migrants to find help.
Zimbabwe is in the throes of a political crisis and efforts by Sadc to push for a government of national unity between President Robert Mugabe and main political rival Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC seem to be hitting a brickwall.
Mugabe, Tsvangirai and the leader of the smaller MDC – Arthur Mutambara – signed a power-sharing deal last September. The pact ran into serious problems as Tsvangirai and Mugabe haggled over sharing of ministerial portfolios and other key government post.
Efforts to break the impasse on Monday by Sadc chairperson Kgalema Motlanthe, Mozambique President Amando Guebuza and talks facilitator Thabo Mbeki failed.
An extraordinary Sadc summit will now take place on Monday in South Africa to tray to salvage the unity government deal. – Staff Writer.