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.
"What 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.
The 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.
"What 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.
Human 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.
"Under 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.