Zimbabwe exiles body rejects refugee camps

By Farisai Gonye

The Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF) has rejected calls by South Africa's main opposition party to set up refugee camps for thousands of Zimbabweans fleeing economic and political turmoil at home.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) last week urged President Thabo Mbeki's government to set up the refugee camps along the border with Zimbabwe following reports of a huge influx of Zimbabweans trekking into the country.

In a statement released at the weekend, ZEF executive director Gabriel Shumba said South Africa should not round up Zimbabweans and keep them in camps but should instead help them integrate into society.

"ZEF maintains that the establishment of refugee camps would restrict Zimbabwean refugees' freedom of movement, while increasing the risk of stigmatisation through segregation.

"Furthermore, ZEF fears that the refugee camps could turn into glorified detention centres, which would violate Zimbabwean refugees' human rights and pose many risks, such as the outbreak of epidemics," said Shumba.

The DA call came amid a deteriorating eight-year economic meltdown in Zimbabwe that has seen huge numbers of people fleeing the country into South Africa.

The South African government has over the past few weeks admitted that there had been a surge in Zimbabwean refugees trooping into the country putting a huge strain on the country's social services.

Pretoria last week shot down the DA call saying the move would violate the country's laws regarding the handling of refugees.

ZEF, which has in the past urged Mbeki "act fast" and step up efforts to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis, said the move to detain Zimbabweans in refugee camps could create more humanitarian problems.

"But action does not mean rounding up those running away from possible death and detaining them under inhumane conditions," said Shumba.