22 March 2007

Zimbabwe: Refugee Crisis As Citizens Rush to Leave Their Country

Harare — Southern African countries have been hit by a huge of wave of economic refugees escaping the crisis in Zimbabwe, the world's fastest declining economy.

The crisis has been raging for seven years.

Analysts warn that the Zimbabwean situation is a time bomb waiting to explode following President Robert Mugabe's latest manoeuvres to hang on to power until 2010, side stepping a presidential election due in 13 months time.

South Africa and Botswana, which share borders with Zimbabwe and are still sticking to their policy of "quiet diplomacy" in dealing with Mr Mugabe, are the hardest hit by the influx of refugees.

President Mr Thabo Mbeki of South and his Botswana counterpart Mr Festus Mogae say Zimbabwe's sovereignty "must be respected." Mr Mugabe himself has often told his neighbours to keep away from his country's internal affairs.

According to latest figures released by Zimbabwean police, Botswana and South Africa deported 142,000 Zimbabweans during the second half of last year. Zimbabwe has a population 12 million.

Zimbabweans are flocking in droves to Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi in search of jobs.

The high literacy rate, reputed to be one of the highest in Africa has also made Zimbabweans an easy target for employers in these countries who want cheap labour.

Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi have not yet resorted to costly deportations but have all expressed concern about the influx of economic refugees from Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe, once a promising economic giant in Africa is going through a severe economic crisis and is facing serious food shortages due to recurring droughts and the government's fast-track land redistribution programme, which disrupted agricultural production and slashed export earnings.

The crisis, which critics blame on Mr Mugabe's mismanagement of the economy and political posturing, has also disrupted trade links in Southern Africa.

Despite being classified by the International Monetary Fund as the world's fastest shrinking economy - with the highest inflation rate in the globe of 1 200 percent - Zimbabwe remains the second biggest economy in Southern Africa outside South Africa.

It is therefore understandable that when Zimbabwe sneezes the whole region, catches a cold.

However, with Mr Mugabe determined to cling on to power and the international community tightening economic sanctions against his regime, Zimbabweans have resorted to turn their backs on their country facing neighbours with better economic prospects.

It appears, it is payback time for Mr Mbeki and his Botswana counterpart Mr Mogae - leaders with political and economic muscle to whip Mr Mugabe back into line - but have maintained that Zimbabweans should be left alone to deal with her own problems.

Although there are no reliable data on the number of undocumented Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe estimated that last year close to three million Zimbabweans are living across the border.

About 200,000 Zimbabweans are estimated to have sought economic refuge in Botswana. Another half a million have sought political asylum in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States and the United Kingdom since the economic problems started surfacing.

The UK is trying to deport 10,000 failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe, which it says are economic refugees but most of them acquired Malawian and South African on the black market and will never return to Zimbabwe. But the effects of Zimbabwe's economic meltdown are more pronounced for its neighbours.

South African deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr Aziz Pahad admitted recently that the increased number of Zimbabwean economic refugees fleeing the meltdown in their country called for an urgent solution.

Last year, a South African newspaper the Sunday Times claimed that it had unearthed information linking Zimbabwean soldiers deserting Mr Mugabe's army to a spate of armed robberies in that country.

Neighbouring Botswana has its hands full too. Last year the government abandoned a project to erect an electric fence along its border with Zimbabwe after ministers in Mr Mugabe's government said their neighbour was trying to create a Gaza Strip.

Botswana argued that the fence was meant to keep away wild animals and livestock from Zimbabwe, which had the foot and mouth diseases (FMD), Zimbabweans said it was meant to keep away illegal border jumpers.

Zimbabweans in Botswana are also facing increased xenophobia by locals who accuse them of stealing their jobs, abetting criminal activities and spreading FMD. Six members of the Botswana Defence Forces have been brought before the courts for forcing a group of 12 Zimbabweans found sleeping in a house in Gaborone to have unprotected sex while they took pictures.

Meanwhile, South Africa has said it would be concerned if Zimbabwe's political tensions spur President Mugabe's government to declare a state of emergency.

The chief government spokesman Themba Maseko told reporters South Africa's chief concern was the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe's government is accused of a brutal crackdown on opposition leaders.

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