JOHANNESBURG - A South African official on Friday dismissed claims by rights groups that the country was rejecting asylum applications from Zimbabweans, saying Africa's biggest economy continued to provide sanctuary to all foreign nationals facing persecution in their home countries.
"A citizen of any country who believes that he or she is being persecuted in their home country is allowed to apply for asylum," Siobhan McCarthy, a spokesperson for South Africa's home affairs department told ZimOnline.
"If a Zimbabwean citizen considers himself or herself to be persecuted in that country, they may apply for asylum."
The Southern Africa Centre for Survivors of Torture (SACST) together with Johannesburg-based officials of Zimbabwe's opposition MDC party have claimed that home affairs officials were turning away Zimbabwean refuges, telling them they were no longer eligible to seek asylum since President Robert Mugabe and opposition leaders signed a power-sharing agreement four weeks ago.
An MDC official, Sibanengi Dube, said that thousands of Zimbabweans had their applications for asylum turned down, leaving them at the mercy of the police who arrest and deport them back to Zimbabwe.
SACST said it was on average receiving 50 Zimbabweans asylum seekers daily reporting South Africa's department of home affairs had turned them away.
An official with the SACST, Anna Moyo said: "Our organisation is receiving an average of 50 Zimbabwean asylum seekers being turned away by the department of home affairs arguing that President Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai (opposition MDC party leader) have signed a deal for a new government hence Zimbabweans should go back to their country."
Mugabe, Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, who heads a breakaway faction of the MDC, signed on September 15 a deal to form a government of national unity that would work to end Zimbabwe's long running political and economic crisis.
But the deal quickly hit a snag after the three leaders failed to agree on the allocation of Cabinet ministries in the new government.
Moyo said: "One thing that I would like to put straight to the Home Affairs officials is that signing a deal does not mean an end to political witch-hunting by ZANU PF. As I am speaking right now, the two warring parties in Zimbabwe are failing to form a government of national unity due to the rift between them."
Political violence and an unprecedented economic collapse have in recent years sent scores of Zimbabweans to neighbouring countries, especially South Africa, the regional economic giant.
"In cases where refugee status has been granted, this will not be revoked at this time. In cases where persons have applied for asylum and are in possession of Section 22 permits, their applications will be reviewed in line with the refugee Act," McCarthy added.
However, the Zimbabwe Political Victims Association (ZIPOVA) maintained that the home affairs department was no longer issuing asylum papers to Zimbabweans.
"We do have evidence to back up our claim," said Mambo-Rusere ZIPOVA' welfare officer.