Zimbabwe: Crisis unlikely to lead to mass exodus

JOHANNESBURG, 25 May (IRIN) - Although Zimbabwe is likely to face serious food shortages this year, the situation is not likely to lead to the predicted flood of refugees entering neighbouring countries, observers and civic organisations told IRIN on Friday.
"Those with skills are leaving, but this is not a new phenomena," a foreign economic analyst told IRIN from Harare. Estimates suggest about 400,000 Zimbabweans have left in recent years, mainly for South Africa, Botswana, Britain and North America. "But a distinction should be made between economic migrants and the one to two million refugees allegedly waiting to cross into South Africa because of the current crisis," the analyst added.

The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR said it had not received any reports of refugees leaving Zimbabwe and that no special contingency plans for such an eventuality had been drawn up. "We define refugees as people leaving their country due to ethnic, religious or political persecution, to date we don't know of anybody crossing into South Africa from Zimbabwe for these reasons," Fidelis Swai of UNHCR in Pretoria told IRIN.

Widespread disruption of agriculture combined with a severe shortage of foreign exchange means Zimbabwe could face a 600,000 mt deficit of maize, the country's staple crop, this year. The country needs at least 1.8 million mt of maize annually to feed its population of 12 million. The mainly white Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) said maize production fell by 43 percent last season and that overall agricultural output would drop by 15 percent in 2001.

"We'll be seeing shortages, but the government should be able to make them up at least this year. Don't underestimate (President Robert) Mugabe's ability to secure loans, particularly in the run-up to (next year's presidential) election," IRIN was told by a reliable economic source in Harare. Economists said the crunch could come in late 2002 when agricultural production could fall a further 30 percent as a result of the impact of the government's land reform programme on commercial farming.

Since the government began its controversial land resettlement scheme early last year an estimated 16,000 jobs have been lost on commercial farms. Zimbabwe's manufacturing sector has also shrunk with 400 companies folding last year alone, the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) said in a recent report. The closures meant job loses for nearly 10,000 workers, mainly in the steel, clothing and manufacturing sectors.

"There are real problems in Zimbabwe, but I don't think the crisis is going to translate into a much-feared regional population movement," one economist told IRIN. In rural areas, people are already complaining that they cannot buy basic foodstuffs because of rampant inflation. "It's bad in places, but I think most Zimbabweans are hanging in there hoping for political change," Densen Mafinyani, General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) told IRIN.

Mafinyani, whose organisation is in contact with rural and urban parishes throughout Zimbabwe, added that he knew of local food shortages, but that these were largely due to recent floods. He pointed to other factors militating against an exodus into neighbouring South Africa.

"A few farmers have been killed here, many hundreds have lost their lives in South Africa, in many ways people see the rural situation there as more insecure and dangerous than here," he said. "Those with marketable skills have left, but that move to more buoyant economies is part of a natural movement of labour and shouldn't be laid at government's door," he added.


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