A prominent international refugee organisation is calling for an end to the deportations of undocumented Zimbabweans by neighbouring countries.
After a month-long fact-finding mission to the region, Refugees International (RI), a US-based non-governmental refugee advocacy group, published a bulletin, Zimbabwe Exodus, on its observations.
"Large numbers of deportees regularly re-cross the borders illegally immediately after deportation, where they are subject to dangerous environmental conditions and often fall prey to criminal gangs. Deportations are very costly for the host governments and do not achieve the goal of deterring undocumented migration," the bulletin said.
Estimates of the scale of migration from Zimbabwe range from 1 million to over 3 million people, while international donor agencies say more than a third of the population, or 4.1 million people, require emergency food assistance. Zimbabwe has the highest inflation rate in the world, nearly 8,000 percent, unemployment levels of 80 percent and acute shortages of basic foodstuffs, fuel and electricity.
In the first seven months of 2007, the Reception and Support Centre of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) processed 117,737 people repatriated from South Africa at its Beitbridge centre on the Zimbabwean border - about 40,000 more than in the last 6 months of 2006. The IOM has estimated that about 35 percent of those arriving at the centre immediately make their way back to South Africa.
According to unofficial estimates, about 40,000 Zimbabweans were repatriated from Botswana to Zimbabwe in 2006. RI said in its bulletin that "what is abundantly clear is that Zimbabwe currently suffers from a near complete lack of basic goods - food, petrol, soap, paraffin - and that Zimbabweans outside their country are actively engaged in providing those goods to family members back home."
Attempts by governments of neighbouring countries to find a solution to Zimbabwe's ongoing problems must "de-link" these political interventions from other considerations, so that they can "address the domestic consequences of Zimbabwean migration, including strains on social services, xenophobia, and the growth of an undocumented underclass that is in need of humanitarian assistance."
The initiative by the Southern African Development Community - of which the Zimbabwean migrant target countries of Botswana, South Africa and Zambia are all members - to broker a solution to Zimbabwe's political problems had deflected attention from the large-scale migration from Zimbabwe, "as it draws attention to the humanitarian crisis inside Zimbabwe", RI said.
Zimbabweans typecast as economic refugees
Zimbabweans were being typecast by the United Nations and neighbouring states as economic migrants, while the nature of the migration was complex, and "The attempt to categorise the outflow [of people] ultimately obstructs the humanitarian response by focussing on why people do (or do not) qualify for aid," RI commented.
|Clearly not all Zimbabweans have a fear of prosecution ... however, economic and political grounds for leaving are not mutually exclusive|
"Clearly not all Zimbabweans have a fear of prosecution ... however, economic and political grounds for leaving are not mutually exclusive. The circumstances of the crisis call for new legal approaches, in line with progressive interpretation of refugee and international human rights covenants."
The main host countries of Zimbabwean migrants, South Africa and Botswana, "should acknowledge the nature of the Zimbabwean migration, and provide adequate protection and assistance to those in need," the bulletin said.
South Africa's Department of Home Affairs, which the RI said showed "a lack of political will" to resolve issues pertaining to Zimbabwean migrants, has consistently said it was bound by international treaties, and Zimbabweans could not be classed as refugees in terms of the international accords South Africa was party to.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) defines a "refugee" as a person who has fled his/her country of nationality or habitual residence, and who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of a "well-founded" fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. This definition excludes those who have left their homes only to seek a more prosperous life.
Treatment of foreign nationals
The home affairs parliamentary portfolio committee in South Africa recently condemned the "animal"-like treatment of foreign nationals by the authorities and the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has launched an investigation into the death of a Zimbabwean refugee.
Fellow refugees named the deceased as Adonis Musati, who had reportedly queued for two weeks outside Cape Town's home affairs offices and died of starvation because he refused to leave the queue for fear of losing his place in it.
|The deportation of Zimbabweans had become a revolving-door phenomenon that costs the country [South Africa] millions and does not solve anything|
Zonke Majodina, deputy chairperson of the SAHRC, told IRIN the deportation of Zimbabweans had become "a revolving-door phenomenon that costs the country [South Africa] millions and does not solve anything."
She said the SAHRC had been monitoring the treatment of foreign nationals and the conditions were "not up to scratch", as the home affairs department lacked adequately trained staff, and their processes were "cumbersome, bureaucratic and overly complicated".
RI said a UN agency, such as the UNHCR, should take a leadership role in the crisis and re-evaluate their planning, which was currently based on the scenario of "hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border in a few weeks", rather than basing its "contingency planning on the continued, steady flow of Zimbabweans out of their home country - exactly what is happening at present".
UNHCR spokesman Jack Reddon told IRIN the recommendation by RI that a UN agency should play a leading role in the migration of Zimbabweans did not take account of existing protocols, in which the agency's role was one of assisting and advising host governments on the issues of refugees and migration. "The lead in handling a flow of people into this country is taken by the South African government - they are in charge," he said.
A report released on Thursday by Save the Children (UK), Children on the move: Protecting unaccompanied children in South Africa and the region, noted that "The response in the region appears inadequate at present. Not only do countries such as South Africa need to work harder to ensure that these children are protected but, at the regional level, policies need to be reviewed and revised."
A child migrant is defined as a person under the age of 18, who has either crossed an international border alone or has subsequently found him- or herself living in a foreign country without an adult caregiver.
Child trafficking is the recruitment and transportation of a child by means of threats or use of force or other forms of coercion. "In the region there is still a tendency to see child migration and child trafficking as one and the same," the report said.
Save the Children said there were no reliable estimates of the number of child migrants in the region, who were mainly from Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
|These children have a powerful sense of futility about the lack of opportunities available to them at home, combined with a strong sense of possibility in relation to those in South Africa|
Most of them were drawn to South Africa because "These children have a powerful sense of futility about the lack of opportunities available to them at home, combined with a strong sense of possibility in relation to those available in South Africa. The fact that South Africa does not actually provide even basic services to many [child migrants] on the border seems not to deter these children."
The report recognised that the death of parents from HIV/AIDS could also contribute to child migration, and that girl children were especially vulnerable to the disease. "Many girls described crossing to South Africa by having sex with the border guards ... alternatively, some of the girls in the study described travelling across the border with truckers in exchange for sex."
The need for children to cross borders "only emphasises the work that remains to be done in the region on fundamental challenges such as HIV and AIDS and poverty."
South Africa's home affairs department could not be reached for comment.