Zimbabweans seeking greener pastures in neighbouring Zambia – and an escape from the election violence wracking the country – are becoming increasingly concerned at the rising levels of contempt directed against them.
"We are being treated with a lot of indignation. Everywhere we go, we are being treated like lesser human beings; it’s like as long as you are a Zimbabwean woman in Zambia, then you are a prostitute [sex worker], which is not the case," Patience Ndhlobvu, a Zimbabwean cross-border trader in the Zambian capital Lusaka, told IRIN.
"I personally take strong exception to that; this is not fair, it’s not a situation of our own making … Zambians have been very good to us, but it’s like things are changing [now]. Everyone is suddenly saying bad things about us. Just the other day, someone called me a prostitute as I was selling my products [sweets, chocolates and biscuits] in town."
South Africa boast the continent's largest economy and is a first choice destination for Zimbabweans seeking to escape the more than 80 percent unemployment rate and an inflation rate unofficially estimated at more than one million percent.
However, recent attacks by South Africans against foreign nationals, which has killed over 60 people and displaced tens of thousands, has seen an influx of about 25,000 Zimbabweans from South Africa to Zambia according to the Red Cross, more than double the number already thought to be in the country.
Levy Mwanawasa, Zambia's president and chairman of the regional body the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), reportedly said the country did not have the capacity to host any more foreign nationals or refugees, as it was developing its former refugee camps into specialist institutions such as skills training centres.
Zambia was host to about 300,000 refugees fleeing the Great Lakes conflicts and the Angolan civil war during the 1990s; numbers have since fallen to about 113,000 following the repatriations of Rwandese, Congolese and Angolan nationals.
Mike Mulongoti, Zambia’s information minister and chief government spokesperson, said there was a concern Zimbabwe's presidential run-off elections on 27 June could precipitate the migration of yet more Zimbabweans to neighbouring states.
Rising tensions between neighbours
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won the 29 March parliamentary poll and almost snatched a first-round victory in the presidential ballot. But 60 people have since died in political violence following the elections, according to the MDC.
|We are continuously being inconvenienced as a people of Zambia. We can't continue to deny that there's something wrong going on there [in Zimbabwe] because their people are now coming onto our soil in thousands|
"We are continuously being inconvenienced as a people of Zambia," Mulongoti told IRIN. "We can’t continue to deny that there’s something wrong going on there [in Zimbabwe] because their people are now coming onto our soil in thousands. They [Zimbabweans] are all over the place."
Zambia’s diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe are strained - in part as a result of Mwanawasa convening an extraordinary SADC summit ahead of the 29 March election. Mugabe refused to attend the Lusaka meeting and his government launched vitriolic attacks against Zambia, along with Botswana and Tanzania, for doing the bidding of Britain, in "a campaign for speedy regime change in Zimbabwe".
"As the government of Zambia, we take strong exception to the Zimbabwean government’s recent unwarranted attacks on us in the media. How long are we going to tolerate this? How long are we going to host these people? We did it during the struggle for freedom," Mulongoti said.
Lee Habasonda, executive director of the regional good governance and human rights watchdog, the Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes [SACCORD], told IRIN South Africa's xenophobic attacks, which appear to target Zimbabweans more than others, could spread to other countries if Zimbabwe's economic meltdown was not addressed.
Zimbabweans resented in the region
"The thing is, it’s not just here in Zambia where Zimbabweans are being resented, even in Botswana, even in Mozambique, and even in Malawi the situation is the same. We have a lot of them coming to do businesses in unacceptable fields such as in the sex trade,” Habasonda said.
In April 2008, Zambian immigration officials deported about 60 Zimbabwean suspected sex workers from Livingstone, the country's tourism capital.
The Immigration Department is attempting to curb the influx of Zimbabwean immigrants through Zambia's Southern Province border posts of Chirundu, Kazungula and Kariba, "but it’s difficult to completely clamp down on these illegal immigrants because they don’t require any visas to enter Zambia. Some of them come with a day’s permit as visitors but never go back," an immigration official, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
"On average, we are having over 200 Zimbabweans crossing into Zambia every day," he said.
Zimbabwe's run-off presidential election could be the trigger for far larger numbers. "We are all keenly watching the situation in Zimbabwe. Whatever happens in Zimbabwe has a bearing on Zambia," Neo Simutanyi, a senior political science lecturer at the University of Zambia, told IRIN.
"Clearly, the people of Zimbabwe want change, but chances of a free and fair election run-off are very slim. What we foresee taking place in Zimbabwe is a possible military coup or armed rebellion if the ruling ZANU-PF goes through, which will be very bad for Zambia and the region as a whole."