The South African government has come under sharp criticism for its recent mass deportation of Zimbabwean immigrants.
Over a period of five days in December, South Africa's department of home affairs deported 3067 Zimbabwean nationals for allegedly flouting immigration regulations.
The deportations come at a time when President Robert G. Mugabe's government has become increasingly hostile to and suspicious of Zimbabweans who return to the country after long stays abroad. Zimbabwean officials have publicly accused them of being spies, mercenaries and agents of regime change who are being sent back into the country under the guise of returning illegal immigrants and failed asylum seekers.
President Mugabe's government is also currently working on measures aimed at curtailing the travel rights of Zimbabweans who are critical of its policies.
Zimbabwe's acting chief immigration officer, Desiderius Karaga, says, "Over 3000 Zimbabweans, many of whom had slipped into South Africa without any travel documentation or overstayed were deported between 23 and 28 December. This confirms the need for Zimbabwe and South Africa to work together in ensuring immigration laws are upheld."
SW Radio Africa (Jan. 4, 2006) reports that the refugee support community in South Africa is gravely concerned that most of those deported over the last two weeks were genuine asylum seekers and that South Africa's department of home affairs was acting in violation of the United Nations Convention on Refugees to which South Africa is a signatory.
The convention dictates that asylum seekers have a right to remain in South Africa while their applications for refugee status are being determined and a right to return to a "safe" country if denied their claim for refugee status.
Bowen Ndlovu, of the Zimbabwe Organization for Refugee Empowerment in Johannesburg says, "There should be serious engagement between the South African government and civic society groups regarding refugees from Zimbabwe. A lot of those people who were deported deserved refugee status, and this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed urgently."
Newzimbabwe.com (March 2, 2005) revealed that deportees receive a "Gestapo" welcome at the Harare International Airport with some of them being detained and interrogated for more than three hours.
Some of the detainees report being tortured by Zimbabwean security agents. Others, who were forcibly removed from Britain in 2005, have not been heard of since. The last their families heard of them, in Zimbabwe and in Britain, was that they had been picked up by Zimbabwe's omnipresent secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization.
Other refugee support groups report that some officials dealing with Zimbabwe asylum seekers in South Africa have been openly declaring their sympathy toward Zimbabwean President Mugabe.
ZWnews.com (Dec. 30, 2005) reports that Rodgers Mudarikwa, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe Action Support Group (Z.A.S.G.), gives as an example a Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.) national who works for the South African government at the refugee reception office in Marabastad. This official, he says, is constantly frustrating Zimbabweans because of his open support for the regime in Harare.
"He told me point blank and in front of four witnesses that he is a great admirer of Robert Mugabe because he helped the D.R.C. government from foreign aggression," says Mudarikwa.
Z.A.S.G. named the official as a Mr. Pierre from the D.R.C. who is acting director of the refugee reception office, in the absence of a regular director who has been working well with Zimbabwe support groups.
"Before he was assigned to be the acting director, we used to process close to 20 people per week with the Home Affairs ministry in Pretoria," says Mudarikwa. "But after he came on board, the whole system is now bogged down because of his reluctance to process the applications.
"What makes us angry is the fact that he has the audacity to question the sincerity of Zimbabwean asylum seekers. Who is he to ask us that?"
The United Nations' Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) (Nov. 17, 2005) reports that a leading international human rights organization found that South African officials were allegedly harassing and extorting money from desperate asylum seekers and refugees.
In a 66-page report, "Living on the Margins, Inadequate Protection for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in South Africa," the New York-based Human Rights Watch (H.R.W.) claimed that while South Africa had adequate refugee laws on paper, asylum seekers, who lived on the sidelines, did not enjoy any protection in practice.
According to H.R.W., South Africa has over 140,000 asylum seekers and refugees from Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast and the war-torn Great Lakes region. They were frequently the target of extortion by police officers who took advantage of their undocumented status.
The controversial Lindela Detention Center, outside Johannesburg, was singled out for ill-treating refugees and running a poor healthcare system for its large population of inmates.
In 2005 over 45 people, including a pregnant woman, died mainly of disease in Lindela. Most of them were Zimbabwean asylum seekers. More than 400 others were hospitalized.
IRIN (Nov. 17, 2005) reports that Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and activist Daniel Molokela says the H.R.W. findings confirm the experiences of many asylum seekers.
"The same allegations have been made so many times that they are nothing new to refugees," Molokela told IRIN. "What is needed, though, is concrete action that should be characterized by a fully-fledged crusade against official corruption."
Z.A.S.G. spokesman Rodgers Mudarikwa says the deportation of Zimbabwean and other refugees must stop.
"The South African government, through Lindela, deports over a thousand Zimbabweans every week who now have to re-enter the political lion's den and face possible starvation," Mudarikwa says.
This article was first published on the World Press Review.