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Zimbabwean refugees face crime, harassment in South Africa

Situation improves slightly in Zimbabwe, but immigrants in Johannesburg stay put.

A young girl sits in front of her sleeping mother with other refugees crowd in a church in Johannesburg, Aug. 1, 2007. The church's homeless shelter has become a virtual refugee camp for more than 1,200 Zimbabweans every night. Other Zimbabweans, both legal and illegal immigrants, are pouring into South Africa daily. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Although Zimbabwe's internal political situation has improved marginally, the millions of Zimbabweans who have fled the country’s economic collapse continue to face considerable hardship in South Africa.

Many Zimbabweans hoping to start a new life in the continent’s economic powerhouse find themselves without shelter, employment and access to basic services. In addition, they often become the target of the hostility of locals who don’t fancy waves of newcomers in a country plagued by chronic unemployment.

As the regional power, South Africa carries a double responsibility: It must ensure that Zimbabwean migrants are treated fairly here but it must also pressure its northern neighbor to resolve its ongoing political and economic crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as much when she visited South Africa in early August.

“South Africa is very aware of the challenges posed by the political crisis in Zimbabwe because South Africa has 3 million refugees from Zimbabwe,” said Clinton.

South Africa’s attitude toward the Zimbabwe issue has been ambiguous to say the least. Diplomatically, the South African government has rarely dared to criticize the regime of President Robert Mugabe, even as Zimbabwe descended into economic ruin. At home, South Africa has promised to ease visa regulations while at the same time it arrests Zimbabwean illegal immigrants despite a moratorium on deportations.

Nowhere is South Africa’s quandary more apparent than at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg where thousands of Zimbabwean migrants have found refuge in recent years. The church became a safe haven for victims of an outburst of xenophobic violence last year that led to more than 60 deaths and the displacement of thousands. Violence against foreigners has since subsided, but the church’s transformation into a large-scale hostel appears anything but temporary.

Some rooms have been turned into classrooms for computer, French and English classes. Others now serve as sewing workshops or daycare centers. A clinic operated by the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders has opened in the building to serve the health care needs of the refugees. At night, the pews serve as makeshift beds with men sleeping downstairs and women in the balcony. In addition hallways and staircases have all become acceptable sleeping grounds.

Some of the luckier women get to stay in two large rooms in the church’s basement, where they can cook and stash their possessions.