Concern is mounting in Zambia that a wave of Zimbabwean immigrants could cross the border escaping worsening political violence in the aftermath of the country's presidential run-off election at the end of June.
“There has been a lot of pre-election systematic movement of Zimbabweans into Zambia, but we may have something like one-third of Zimbabwean immigrants crossing into Zambia to seek asylum,” said Joseph Chilengi, executive director of the Africa Internally Displaced Persons’ Voice, (Africa IDP Voice) a lobby group championing the rights of displaced persons. “Zambia seems to be the only country in the region that appears to be offering a conducive environment for asylum at the moment”.
Fears of a dramatic influx have been heightened by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s remark at a funeral over the weekend that the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), would never lead Zimbabwe and that he was prepared to "go to war" for his country. “Anyone who seeks to undermine our land reform programme, itself the bedrock of our politics from time immemorial, seeks and gets war," Mugabe said.
The dire warnings repeated by Mugabe since last week, have been echoed by other members of the ruling ZANU-PF party, including Jabulani Sibanda, the leader of the pro-Mugabe Zimbabwe Liberation War Veterans Association.
"When people go to vote on June 27, their vote should not be secret, it should be public because the election is now about whether we retain our independence or surrender it to the British," Sibanda told IRIN. "Zimbabwe has people who are prepared to lose their lives to defend their sovereignty and democracy."
South Africa boasts the continent’s largest economy and has been the first choice destination for Zimbabweans fleeing from a more than 80 percent unemployment rate and an inflation figure unofficially estimated at more than one million percent. However, recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, which left over 60 people dead and tens of thousands displaced, has seen an exodus 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 Zambia.
|Whichever way the election run-off goes, there will still be thousands of political refugees coming here because the losing group will be victims of targeted attacks|
Last week, the Zambian government granted political asylum to a dozen MDC supporters, who fled the deteriorating political conditions ahead of the 27 June runoff election.
The 12 Zimbabweans were given full refugee status after undergoing a screening process, and according to Susan Sikaneta, permanent secretary in the Zambian Ministry of the Interior, they would be taken to the country’s largest refugee settlement camp, Meheba, in northwestern Zambia, run by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
“The Zambian government, like any other, is obliged under international agreements and conventions to provide asylum to people fleeing from their countries … these people said they were targets of victimisation because they belong to the MDC. One of them claimed that his father was killed and as a result, he also feared that he could be the next person to die,” Sikaneta said.
Zimbabwe's first round presidential election on 29 March was won by the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangarai, but he fell short of the required 50 percent plus one vote for an outright victory, forcing a re-run with Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. Almost 70 people have died in political violence since March, according to the MDC.
The government's banning at the beginning of the month of NGOs working in the countryside - on the grounds they are fronts for western powers - has affected aid assistance to over two million Zimbabweans, according to the United Nations. The development agency World Vision International, which like most humanitarian organisations working in Zimbabwe channels its aid through local NGOs, said it had been forced to suspend relief to 1.6 million vulnerable children
Victims of possible attacks
“Whichever way the election run-off goes, there will still be thousands of political refugees coming here because the losing group will be victims of targeted attacks, whether it will be the MDC or the ruling ZANU-PF; a trend has already been set in motion” said Chilengi of Africa IDP Voice
“Furthermore, the granting of refugee status to Zimbabwean immigrants by the Zambian government at a time such as this, will in itself generate more refugees because the message being sent out there is that Zambia as a country, has a conducive environment to provide asylum to those that are in need.”
The Zambian government does not demand visa requirements from people from neighbouring countries, which makes it easier for Zimbabwean immigrants to cross into Zambia.
But Sikaneta said the government had started screening all people entering the country through the Southern province border posts of Kazungula, Chirundu and Kariba to avoid abuse of the asylum status facility.
“We know some people may take advantage of the situation to come to Zambia even when they don’t qualify for asylum, but we have an eligibility committee in place, and our immigration officials and police have been put on alert at all order posts. On issues of whether we have the capacity to take care of the perceived influx of Zimbabwean immigrants, I think let’s cross that bridge when we get there, but at the moment it’s just important to note that the Zambian government is adequately prepared for anything,” she said.
Levy Mwanawasa, Zambia’s president and chairman of the regional body, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), recently said his country did not have the capacity to host any more refugees, as it was developing its former camps into skills training centres.
Zambia was host to about 300,000 refugees fleeing the Great Lakes conflicts and the Angolan civil war during the 1990s. The numbers have since dropped to about 113,000 following the on-going repatriation of Rwandese, Congolese and Angolan nationals.