Zimbabwean refugees face crime, harassment in South Africa

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.

Clara is one of the fortunate ones. The middle-aged woman, who would not disclose her last name for fear of being identified by authorities, said she was directed to the church after finding herself stranded in South Africa in 2006. Paul Verryn, the church’s benevolent bishop, gave her enough money for the trip back to Zimbabwe, but the money was stolen the next day. As things deteriorated in Zimbabwe, she decided to stay, seizing whatever job opportunity came her way. Clara said her precarious situation still beats what she could get in Zimbabwe, but that doesn’t mean she’s fallen in love with South Africa.

“South Africa is a violent country,” she said. “It’s a dangerous place.”

For undocumented Zimbabwean immigrants, danger comes in many forms, from sexual predators lurking by the border to exploitative employers taking advantage of the migrants’ illegal status. Law enforcers can prove just as hostile. Local police have conducted several raids in and outside the church, making sweeping arrests each time. The arrests don’t make much sense since South Africa recently declared a moratorium on the deportations of Zimbabwean immigrants, said Kajaal Ramjathan-Keogh, head of the refugee and migrant rights program at Lawyers for Human Rights.

“The arrests of Zimbabweans have not stopped, and there is no reason for police to continue to arrest Zimbabweans for being illegally in the country because they cannot deport them,” she said.

Local government representatives didn’t return calls seeking comment, but a spokesman for the city of Johannesburg wrote in an email that the city has been collaborating with the church and NGOs to find proper shelter for the migrants.

Access to basic health care has also been a continuous problem as Zimbabweans either don’t go to hospitals because they fear being arrested or they are denied treatment despite a constitution that guarantees health services for all. Most common are sexual and respiratory infections, but many migrants also need psychological assistance, said Sharon Chigwada, a nurse working at the clinic operated by Doctors Without Borders.

“They cannot even find a job; they cannot even afford the bread of a meal, so some people become very stressed,” she said.

Chigwada is herself a Zimbabwean expatriate, having left her country because the lack of basic supplies and medicine left her unable to care for patients.

Some positive signs have emerged in Zimbabwe since the formation earlier this year of a fragile unity government between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change: inflation is under control and some foreign companies have expressed interest in returning to the country. Harassment of MDC members continues, however, and Zimbabwe is still a long way from economic recovery and political freedom.

South African President Jacob Zuma visited Zimbabwe for two days in September, but he said little beyond reiterating his support of the unity government.

“It’s a very serious issue,” said Ramjathan-Keogh. “It needs quite a hands-on and quite a serious approach but we’re not seeing that approach from South Africa.”