Zimbabwe + 1 more

South Africa-Zimbabawe: No refugee influx ahead of elections

MESSINA, 4 February (IRIN) - A small Zimbabwean enclave has emerged inside South Africa, just beyond the immigration gates of the northern border post of Messina, that is not shown on any map.
Its centre is the taxi stand at the beginning of the road south to Johannesburg and the rest of South Africa's cities. Busy throughout the day, it is at night that it really comes alive. Knots of passengers that have passed immigration and wait to re-board their buses mix with Zimbabweans heading home. Bedding down for the night on cardboard packing cases are the women traders - a permanent population of transiting entrepreneurs.

But according to South African immigration and customs officials, there has been no exodus of Zimbabwean refugees fleeing the political violence and farm seizures in the run-up to Zimbabwe's March presidential election. Since 2001, only two people have applied for asylum in South Africa, both were farm managers.

"At this stage there is definitely not an increase according to my statistics," an immigration official told IRIN. His customs counterpart, who would be aware of a surge of people packing up their belongings and heading south, agreed. Although he had recently received telephone enquiries from white farmers asking about regulations, "most people are staying put, or coming on extended holidays to check things out", the customs officer said.

However, the South African government is making contingency plans should political unrest lead to a large influx of people. They centre on a disused army base at Artonvilla, five km from Messina, which has been handed over to the ministry of home affairs.

A senior army officer told IRIN that the authorities were being cautious over preparations for its readiness so as not to attract asylum seekers. But he said there was concern that a violent election process could see it in use.

At the moment, Rita Sithole represents the bulk of Zimbabweans entering South Africa. She crosses the border with bails of Mopani worms (a local delicacy) for sale, or arts and craft. Each time she comes, she sleeps at Messina overnight to qualify for duty free status on the goods she takes back to Zimbabwe. Other Zimbabweans come to work and earn rands, sending home their earnings.

While formal sector trade between the two countries has fallen, informal business is holding firm. But its nature is changing. Whereas in the past Zimbabweans came to Messina to buy motor vehicle spare parts and consumer items, food shortages at home since November last year means traders like Sithole take back basic items like mealie meal, oil and sugar for sale on the blackmarket. Strict Zimbabwean regulations limits the amount of goods they are allowed to bring in and the frequency of their visits.

But while Sithole, who also doubles as a currency dealer, feels that she can make a living, Victor Keyi is just scraping by. He worked in a transport company in Harare until he was laid off in 2000. Now, with two children to support, he works as a porter carrying people's bags across the one kilometre of no-man's land between the two border posts.

"Life is difficult," he told IRIN. "A lot of people go to South Africa but few go to stay. Most go to buy goods or work and come back. If the economy was better, you wouldn't see people here."

According to the South African authorities, to an extent the same is true for the Zimbabweans that cross the border illegally. Around 100 to 200 are caught each day by the army as they slip across the Limpopo river heading to South Africa's cities to find jobs. In January, 2,600 people originating from all over Zimbabwe were intercepted by the army and handed over to the South African police.

"Ninety-nine percent are fleeing because they are hungry," a South African officer said. "At this stage they still remain illegal until South Africa declares them refugees."


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