At the Beitbridge border post between Zimbabwe and South Africa, asylum-seekers from all over the continent used to jostle with Zimbabwean migrants to gain entry into a country widely perceived as a place of freedom and safety.
But since border officials began turning away or arresting so-called “third-country nationals” seeking asylum in April 2011, they have joined the steady stream of undocumented Zimbabweans who brave dense bush, ruthless gangs, razor wire and the Limpopo River, to enter the country illegally.
“I paid R290 (US$38) for someone to drive me from Beitbridge to the bush,” said Simeon Mulekezi, a 24-year-old refugee from Burundi. “There were people from Zimbabwe who said they’d help us cross the river but they wanted money so I decided to cross by myself even though the water was up to my neck. I was with four Zimbabweans but none of us knew the way. We got lost for 24 hours and saw a lot of animals. I was scared, but luckily I didn’t meet a lion.”
While Mulekezi survived his ordeal unscathed, “some were robbed in that bush, some were raped,” he told IRIN.
Prior to April 2011, third-country nationals like Mulekezi were able to enter the country via Beitbridge where they were issued with a temporary permit, known as a section 23, which gave them 14 days to report to a refugee reception office and formally apply for asylum.
Following this apparent change in attitude towards asylum-seekers, Mohamed Hassan, who heads the International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in Musina, noted that, “we’ve received reports that many people from Somalia and Ethiopia were coming through the bush… They cross the river with the help of guides, but sometimes these very people rob them and many times they find a group of thugs waiting for them.”
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which runs mobile clinics in and around Musina, has been treating migrants who have suffered violent attacks by border gangs known as `guma-guma’ for years, but according to Christine Mwongera, MSF's project coordinator in Musina, staff have seen an increase in trauma cases since the end of 2011.
"The Zimbabweans have been going through this for more than a year, but now it's other nationalities as well," she told IRIN.
Her observation was confirmed by Christopher Sibanda, head of security for Maroi Farm, 25km west of Beitbridge, who regularly picks up migrants who have wandered onto the property after climbing through one of the many holes in the nearby border fence.
"Every day we find border jumpers. It's worse this year, we see people from other nations [besides Zimbabwe] - Somalis, Congolese, Rwandese," he said. "Most are in a bad state. A week ago we found four people dead; maybe they got lost in the bush and died from hunger and exhaustion."
Robbed and abandoned
He added that some drowned trying to cross the river, particularly during the rainy season, and that he found others stripped of their clothing and possessions after having been robbed and abandoned by their guides or the `guma-guma’.
"We feel pity for them. Sometimes we make them food or give them directions to the road." Other times, Sibanda hands the migrants over to the army which took over border security from the police in 2010.
|SLIDESHOW: Border Jumpers|
Photo: Mujahid Safodien/IRIN
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Owner of Maroi Farm, Hannes Nel, said the migrants cut his fences, poached animals and posed a fire risk, but that the army troops deployed along the border lacked the resources to stem the flow. "The fence is in such a poor state, they might as well leave the gates open," he commented.
Indeed, while accompanying Sibanda on one of his patrols, IRIN observed a group of some 10 migrants walking through an open gate in the fence and getting into a waiting vehicle.
Captain George Mills of the Musina police admitted that only a fraction of the vehicles smuggling people from the border were intercepted. "Since the new year... there's been an increase. We don't have the manpower, so most are passing us."
If the purpose of discouraging third-country nationals from approaching the official border post was to improve security, the result may have been the opposite. “When they are coming through the border, you have the opportunity to obtain biometric information,” Hassan of IOM commented. “However, if they come through irregularly, that is when you don’t know who is in the country.”
More border jumpers also means more potential victims for the `guma-guma’. Mills said that police operations targeting their activities rarely resulted in convictions as few illegal migrants were willing to open cases, let alone testify in court. "When we make an arrest and the case comes to court, you can't find the complainant or witnesses so we can't proceed and have to release them," he told IRIN.
Fear of authorities also prevents many of the migrants attacked or injured while crossing the border from seeking health care. "Their aim is to get an asylum permit. Health is not their priority, even if they've been sexually abused or had trauma," said Mwongera of MSF. "If you're undocumented, you want to stay invisible."
MSF partners with the local health department to provide medical and counselling services to survivors of sexual assaults at the Thuthuzela Care Centre in Musina Hospital, but knowing that the first port of call for most of the asylum-seekers is the Refugee Reception Office in Musina, the organization has set up a mobile clinic across the street. Staff also make nightly visits to the town's four shelters where migrants waiting for documents or lacking the funds to continue on to urban centres like Johannesburg and Cape Town are given a place to sleep and one hot meal a day.
The shelter for male migrants run by a local church on the outskirts of town consists of little more than a row of tents, and conditions at the women's shelter are only slightly better with one large room accommodating dozens of women and their children in bunk beds. Two more shelters take in unaccompanied children. All are church run, although UNHCR provides meals at the men's shelter and other organizations such as MSF and IOM donate blankets and other non-food items.
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"There is no government capacity to provide these services," said Maureen McBrien, who heads the UNHCR office in Musina. "However basic, these churches are doing all they can to provide."
During January, many asylum-seekers were forced to prolong their stay in Musina as officials at the Refugee Reception Office began refusing to assist those without section 23 permits despite the fact that such permits were no longer being issued at the border. In a 1 February press release, MSF described the situation as a “cruel Catch-22”, and on the same day, Lawyers for Human Rights won a court case which forced the Department of Home Affairs to accept an asylum application from a Zimbabwean woman who had been arrested after being turned away from Musina’s refugee office for not having a section 23 permit.
Following the case, large numbers of newly arrived asylum-seekers who had been hanging around Musina for fear of proceeding any further without documents were finally admitted to the Refugee Reception Office and allowed to apply for asylum.
“Yesterday they gave us the forms, so today we’re hoping to make our applications,” said Mulekezi, who was waiting for the office to open its gates early on Friday morning. “I’m wishing to go to Cape Town because there’s freedom there.”