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Zimbabwean refugees face crime, harassment in South Africa

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

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.”