Brazzaville — THE African Union is investigating the alleged rampant abuse of Zimbabwean refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa and Botswana, described as "xenophobic and hostile".
The decision follows concerns raised by human rights groups in the region to the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) meeting in Brazzaville (Congo) recently.
The reports were submitted by the Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA) and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF).
They said South Africa and Botswana's refusal to treat Zimbabwean immigrants flooding the two countries as refugees fuelled the abuse. ACHPR is an organ of the AU.
The Special Rapporteur for Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Internally Displaced Persons and Immigrants, Tom Nyanduga, presented a report to the commission raising the problem.
He said he had already requested the South African government to invite him to carry out further investigations.
"We are concerned about the ill-treatment of asylum seekers, especially from Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in South Africa," Nyanduga said.
"To that end, there are serious concerns about the activities of a private company operating the Lindela Holding Centre for illegal immigrants.
"I look forward to engaging the South African authorities on the matter and also to investigate other issues that have been brought to the attention of the commission."
Several Zimbabwean immigrants have died in detention at the Lindela Centre just outside Johannesburg, after being denied food and being subjected to degrading treatment.
An estimated three million Zimbabweans have fled the country since the crisis started about eight years ago and most of them sought refuge in South Africa and Botswana.
Zimbabweans in South Africa face the same problems and difficulties as refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and DRC, particularly the lack of access to documentation, which affects their chances of securing gainful employment.
Botswana and South Africa deport thousands of Zimbabweans every week.
"Zimbabwe is near collapse as evidenced by the acute shortage of basic necessities and the thousands of its citizens escaping the crisis every day," HURISA said.
"But Botswana and South Africa, who handle the bulk of the immigrants, are not handling the Zimbabwean crisis properly as refugees and asylum seekers are met with xenophobia and hostility."
HURISA said Zimbabwean professionals such as doctors, nurses and lawyers fleeing the country were forced to do menial jobs in South Africa because they did not have proper documentation, yet the neighbouring country suffered from an acute skills shortage.
"Botswana and South Africa are best advised to use the funds they allocate for deportations of the refugees to handle the Zimbabwean humanitarian crisis more humanely," the institute added.
ZEF director, Gabriel Shumba said they were concerned that deportations of Zimbabweans from the two countries continued to increase amid more deaths of asylum seekers due to hunger.
ACHPR chairperson, Sanji Monageng of Botswana, praised HURISA and ZEF for providing information about Zimbabwean refugees in the two countries.
and pledged that the commission would conduct its own investigations.
Last year Botswana said it deported about 50 000 Zimbabweans between May and December, while 150 000 were repatriated from South Africa during the same period.
The Zimbabwean delegation at the ACHPR led by Margaret Chiduku, an official in the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, claimed that locals fleeing to those countries were not refugees since the country was not at war.
Their South African colleagues also denied reports that refugees and asylum seekers were abused at detention centres.