LUSAKA , 9 June 2008 (IRIN) - Zimbabweans seeking greener pastures in neighbouring Zambia - and an escape from the election violence wracking the country - are becoming increasingly concerned at the rising levels of contempt directed against them since widespread xenophobic attacks in South Africa last month.
"We are being treated with a lot of indignation. Everywhere we go, we are being treated like lesser human beings; it's like as long as you are a Zimbabwean woman in Zambia, then you are a prostitute [sex worker], which is not the case," Patience Ndhlobvu, a Zimbabwean cross-border trader in the Zambian capital Lusaka, told IRIN.
"I personally take strong exception to that; this is not fair, it's not a situation of our own making . Zambians have been very good to us, but it's like things are changing [now]. Everyone is suddenly saying bad things about us. Just the other day, someone called me a prostitute as I was selling my products [sweets, chocolates and biscuits] in town."
South Africa boast the continent's largest economy and is a first choice destination for Zimbabweans seeking to escape the more than 80 percent unemployment rate and an inflation rate unofficially estimated at more than one million percent.
However, recent attacks by South Africans against foreign nationals, that has according to South African police killed 62 people and displaced tens of thousands, has seen an influx of about 25,000 Zimbabweans from South Africa to Zambia according to the Red Cross, more than double the number already thought to be in the country.
Levy Mwanawasa, Zambia's president and chairman of the regional body the Southern Africa Development Community, has reportedly said the country did not have the capacity to host any more foreign nationals or refugees, as it was developing its former refugee camps into specialist institutions such as skills training centres.
Zambia was one of the regions main host countries for refugees fleeing the Great Lakes conflicts and the Angolan civil war during the 1990s. At its peak, Zambia was host to about 300,000 refugees, a number that has since fallen to about 113,000 following the repatriations of Rwandese, Congolese and Angolan nationals.
Mike Mulongoti, Zambia's information minister and chief government spokesperson, said there was a concern Zimbabwe's presidential run-off elections on 27 June could precipitate an increase in the migration of Zimbabweans to neighbouring states.
Rising tensions between neighbours
Zimbabweans first went to the polls on 29 March, and while there was no clear winner in the presidential ballot, Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF government lost its majority in parliament for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980. President Robert Mugabe polled fewer votes than Movement for Democratic Change presidential challenger Morgan Tsvangirai, who failed to achieve the 50 percent plus one ballot required to negate a second round of voting.
Since the 29 March poll there has been widespread reports of political violence that has killed at least 60 people, according to the MDC.
"We are continuously being inconvenienced as a people of Zambia," Mulongoti told IRIN. "We can't continue to deny that there's something wrong going on there [in Zimbabwe] because their people are now coming on our soil in thousands. They [Zimbabweans] are all over the place."
Zambia's diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe have become strained recently after Mwanawasa convened a heads of states extraordinary SADC summit ahead of the March 29 election. Mugabe refused to attend the Lusaka meeting and his government launched vitriolic attacks against Zambia, along with Botswana and Tanzania, for doing the bidding of Britain, in "a campaign for speedy regime change in Zimbabwe".
Mugabe and his government maintain that the MDC is a front for the "imperial" interests of Britain and the US, a charge the MDC deny and cite their popularity as a consequence of ZANU-PF's mismanagement of the economy.
"As the government of Zambia, we take strong exception to the Zimbabwean government's recent unwarranted attacks on us in the media. How long are we going to tolerate this? How long are we going to host these people? We did it during the struggle for freedom.
"We thought after that we had solved the problem, and now they can look after themselves. [But] what we are seeing now is in fact, an influx of more people; there's so much influx of Zimbabwean people. Why are they running out of their own country?" Mulongoti said.
Lee Habasonda, executive director of the regional good governance and human rights watchdog, the Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes [SACCORD], told IRIN South Africa's xenophobic attacks, which appear to target Zimbabweans more than others, others could spread to other countries if Zimbabwe's economic meltdown was not addressed.
Zimbabweans resented in the region
"The thing is, it's not just here in Zambia where Zimbabweans are being resented, even in Botswana, even in Mozambique, and even in Malawi the situation is the same. We have a lot of them coming to do businesses in unacceptable fields such as in the sex trade. This is unhealthy for the region, it's likely to worsen the HIV/AIDS record of the region," Habasonda said.
Both Zambia and Zimbabwe have high rates of HIV/AIDS, in Zimbabwe about 20.1 percent of people aged between 15 and 49 are HIV positive, while in Zambia latest statistics released by the government earlier this month put the infection rate at similar levels for the same age-band.
In April 2008, Zambian immigration officials deported about 60 Zimbabwean suspected sex workers from Livingstone, the country's tourism capital.
The Immigration Department is attempting to curb the influx of Zimbabwean immigrants through Zambia's Southern Province border posts of Chirundu, Kazungula and Kariba, "but it's difficult to completely clamp down on these illegal immigrants because they don't require any visas to enter Zambia. Some of them come with a day's permit as visitors but never go back," an immigration official, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
"On average, we are having over 200 Zimbabweans crossing into Zambia every day," he said.
Analysts said the knock-on effect of Zimbabwe's malaise was having a serious impact on its neighbour and if the situation deteriorated further, Zambia was unlikely to remain untouched.
"We are all keenly watching the situation in Zimbabwe. Whatever happens in Zimbabwe has a bearing on Zambia," Neo Simutanyi, a senior political science lecturer at the University of Zambia, told IRIN.
"Clearly, the people of Zimbabwe want change, but chances of a free and fair election run-off are very slim. What we foresee taking place in Zimbabwe is a possible military coup or armed rebellion if the ruling ZANU-PF goes through, which will be very bad for Zambia and the region as a whole."