Since August, it's estimated that at
least 38-thousand Zimbabweans have crossed into South Africa seeking asylum,
health care, or better job opportunities --
a substantial rise over the departure rate a year earlier. Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for
Human Rights Watch, says that
food shortages, the cholera epidemic, and meager prospects for earning a
livelihood are having as much impetus for the mass exodus as the political and
economic repression that spawned these conditions.
we're 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 there 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," he noted.
procedural obstacles that expatriates find on the other side of the border
often result in deportations – more than 250-thousand sent back annually. Human Rights Watch says that many of these
deportations of Zimbabweans fleeing political violence, forced evictions and
economic destitution are avoidable, that Pretoria'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.
we're 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 authorization," said Frelick.
Rights Watch claims that the South African absorption system is backlogged
because of an inflexible approach to defining refugee status, which it says
places too much weight on Zimbabweans having to justify their flight in terms
of political persecution. Frelick says a
more pragmatic approach would help unclog the pipeline and enable the migrants
to find help.
the present circumstances, we think that it's a bit arbitrary or artificial to
make the fine distinctions between a person who's fleeing political repression
and a person who is fleeing hunger, the inability to have medical treatment,
and in many cases, people that for example fled from the old Operation
Murambatsvina, where ZANU-PF, the ruling, governing party of Robert Mugabe,
razed poor, shoddy structures in urban areas to push people out into the rural
areas. And the number of the refugees
that we're seeing in South Africa are actually people that lost their homes
during that period of time. So these are
people that have lost their livelihood.
They are not able to get medical treatment. They are not able to get food. And they're not people who would
traditionally fall under the refugee definition, perhaps, but we're also not able
to say these are economic migrants seeking opportunity. These are people who are involuntary
migrants, people who don't have a choice, and any reasonable person under these
circumstances would leave, and they need protection," he said.
The Human Rights Watch researcher
notes that if the political will exists, South African authorities would have
the capacity to adjust their quotas for needy people by designating larger
categories, such as nationality, to their criteria for asylum and temporary
status. As such, he note, immigration
officials would simply agree not to deport the Zimbabweans and put government
resources to better use securing emergency provisions and helping the refugees
find jobs and get back on their feet.