Zimbabwe + 1 more

Zim refugees struggle in exile

Germano Vera Cruz

Maputo - Mawise Gumba was confident that he would have little trouble finding work in his old profession as a maths teacher when he turned his back on his native Zimbabwe and crossed the border into Mozambique.

But like so many of the estimated three million Zimbabweans who have fled the chaos of President Robert Mugabe, he found that his qualifications counted for little in a country that was once seen as a poor relation.

"I've had a pretty hard time of it so far: hunger, thirst, sleeping in the street - the whole lot," says the 38-year-old who now has to hawk traditional sculptures and paintings from a street stall in the capital Maputo.

"I thought that I would be easily able to get work as a teacher but when I got here I found that it was impossible because of my lack of Portuguese so I had to set up this stall."

Zimbabwe was considered one of Africa's post-colonial success stories in the first two decades after independence from Britain in 1980, with Mugabe credited with producing one of the continent's best educated populations.

Downward spiral

In contrast, Mozambique spent the 1980s mired in civil war that continues to stunt the growth of the former Portuguese colony which had gained independence five years earlier than its western neighbour.

But a programme of land reforms launched in 2000, involving the often violent expropriation of white-owned farms, precipitated a downward spiral in the economy of Zimbabwe. It now has the highest inflation rate in the world at 1 730 percent and 80% of the population is living in poverty.

"I left when I decided that for as long as Mugabe stays in power, the situation is only going to get worse," says Gumba.

While Gumba came to a decision to quit his homeland a couple of years, journalist Mike Mpani wanted to stay and try and bring about the 83-year-old Mugabe's downfall.

But Mpani, an active supporter of Zimbabwe's main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), eventually fled at the start of the year when he began to worry about his personal security.

"Towards the end of last year, by taking part in a public protest, and through my articles, my membership of the MDC became clear.

"After that, both myself and a number of other MDC supporters were arrested and beaten by Mugabe's men. They threatened that we would end up dead if we continued campaigning for our party."

Even more repressive

The political climate has become even more repressive in the last few weeks with the authorities announcing a ban on political protests in February and then crushing a planned mass prayer rally, assaulting MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and other opposition activists in the process.

Accompanied by a fellow activist, Mpani travelled across Zimbabwe by bus and crossed the border into the central Mozambican province of Manica before eventually making it to the capital, without a cent to his name.

"When we arrived in Maputo, we had nothing. After two days, we went to the UNHCR (the United Nations' refugee agency).

"They told us that they couldn't do anything for us. But even so, they gave us some money to buy some food and to catch the bus to wherever we want."

Mozambique, in common with all the countries in southern Africa, does not accord refugee status to those who flee Zimbabwe.

"Since the end of the year, nearly a thousand Zimbabweans, especially in Manica province, have come to see us and asked for refugee status."

"But that's not possible at the moment", a source at the national migration office said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

'Largely impotent'

"All that we can do is to advise them to go to the immigration services to see if there is another way to regularise their stay," added Alberto de Deus, director of Mozambique's national refugee support institute (INAR).

The UNHCR, which drew up a special emergency plan to deal with Zimbabwean refugees, estimates that around 5 000 of them need help in Mozambique but admits that it is largely impotent.

"At the end of last year, we wrote to the Mozambican government asking it to change their stance but we have not received any response so far," said Victoria Akyeampong, the UN agency's local representative.

"Many Zimbabweans come to us for help ... We give them enough money to buy food for a couple of weeks and to travel where they want to go. It's all we can do."

Mpani has used the money to rent out a small room in Maputo but he has no intention of hanging around in Mozambique for the long-term.

"I am giving some English courses, while waiting for something better. I am going to try and get to South Africa. I have some family over there."

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