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UNHCR Urges South Africa Not to Deport Zimbabweans

The U.N. refugee agency is urging the government of South Africa not to forcibly deport Zimbabwean asylum seekers back to their home country where they could face danger. The UNHCR reports a significant increase in the number of Zimbabweans crossing into South Africa following the presidential runoff vote at the end of June. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The U.N. refugee agency says it is disturbed by the pattern of displacement from Zimbabwe since last month's presidential election. Previously, it says most Zimbabweans crossing the border into South Africa were single men or women seeking work.

But, it says an increasing number of families are now arriving as a result of political violence. UNHCR spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, says several people have shown signs of beatings or torture.

"In the town of Musina near the northern border with Zimbabwe in South Africa, there is a visible presence of vulnerable Zimbabweans sleeping rough in the bush, begging at the traffic lights and clearly in distressed circumstances and desperately needing humanitarian help... Many of the new arrivals are entering the country through unauthorized border points," she said. "Those entering legally do not usually claim asylum upon entry. So this makes it difficult to give an accurate estimate of the numbers involved. They are fearful of arrest and deportation, they remain underground, making them vulnerable to other forms of violence and exploitation, such as rape and robbery."

Pagonis says figures from reliable sources show some 17,000 Zimbabweans have been deported from South Africa through the Beit Bridge border post in the last 40 days alone. She says these deportations have gone ahead despite earlier calls from the UNHCR to suspend all forcible returns.

"In view of the large scale deportations, coupled with the difficulties that Zimbabweans face braving the crowds to access the national asylum procedure, it creates a real risk that refoulement - or forcible return to their country of origin where they could face danger - could occur," said Pagonis. "The High Commissioner is reiterating his appeal to South Africa to halt all deportations of Zimbabweans and ensure that those seeking asylum should have access to the national asylum procedures."

Given the critical situation, Pagonis says the UNHCR is appealing to South Africa to exceptionally grant Zimbabweans a temporary legal status allowing them to stay in the country.

The U.N. agency reports hundreds of Zimbabwean asylum seekers in need of protection also have arrived in Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique since March.