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Aid Workers Voice Alarm About Condition of Zimbabwe Refugees in South Africa


A humanitarian group in South Africa says that despite the recent power-sharing government in Zimbabwe and new government policies in South Africa, the plight of Zimbabwean refugees continues to deteriorate.

The medical charity Doctors Without Borders, known as MSF, is warning Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa continue to experience violence, harassment, sexual abuse and a lack of basic health care.

The group's medical coordinator for South Africa, Eric Goemaere, said the three-month old government of national unity in Harare gives an impression the situation in Zimbabwe is normalizing, but this is misleading.

"Actually we still see every day thousands of Zimbabweans crossing the border and coming to South Africa, fleeing economic meltdown, political turmoil, food insecurity and a total of lack of access to health care because the health system in Zimbabwe has more or less collapsed," he said.

But he said instead of finding refuge, the displaced endure intolerable suffering.

He said South African security forces continue to harass, detain and deport Zimbabwean refugees, despite new policies that allow them to remain and work in the country for 90 days without visas.

He also noted that the South African constitution guarantees the right of individuals of any nationality to access the country's health care system. But he said sick Zimbabweans regularly are turned away from hospitals and clinics.

This has obliged Doctors Without Borders to expand its emergency health care facilities in Johannesburg and the border city of Musina.

The medical officer in Musina, Tonderai Mazanihi, said the group is treating increasing numbers of victims of violent rape, most of whom are attacked by gangs as they cross the border.

"Seventy percent of the cases of rape we see are gang rapes, and most of them are under armed threat," Mazanihi said.

He says Doctors Without Borders has responded by opening a special clinic for victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

Several thousand of the most desperate refugees are sleeping in and around the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg.

The MSF medical coordinator there, Tragedy Matsvaire, says the number of patients being treated has tripled in the past year and there is a high incidence of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

"In May only, we tested 122 patients for HIV and ... 33 percent were [HIV] positive," Matsvaire said.

He said his staff is also caring for more than 150 unaccompanied children who have fled home without an adult relative.

MSF officials called for the South African government to implement the new visa system, and also called for the government and U.N. agencies to provide better medical and humanitarian care to vulnerable Zimbabweans.

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