Zimbabweans flee food shortages and risk detention

South Africa is home to countless asylum seekers from neighboring countries. Many others migrate to South Africa from Zimbabwe to find work. "Thousands come over every day," South Africa's chief director of disaster management told Refugees International (RI). In Messina, a town that borders Zimbabwe near the Limpopo River, RI was able to learn about the lives of those leaving the hunger of Zimbabwe and crossing to what they believe will be a better life.
Zimbabwe, once a food surplus producing country, has now had the heart of its economy ripped out. Erratic rainfall, a series of dry spells, political mismanagement of production, and land reform policies have created a major shortage of food in Zimbabwe (see Zimbabwe: Survival Strategies in the Face of Starvation) and the RI Bulletin: Zimbabwe from Bread Basket to Basket Case).

The cycle of migration, from Zimbabwe into South Africa and back, has been happening for years. Normally people cross into South Africa and purchase food and send it back or find work on farms and return to Zimbabwe a few months, or sometimes even years, later. The South African army apprehends, in its estimation, 2,000 people per month. However, a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand, who recently conducted a small study of migration in Messina, found that the movement of people has slightly increased because of hunger in Zimbabwe.

RI spoke with individuals at a detention center in Messina who have crossed from Zimbabwe to South Africa and had been caught and detained. "I am suffering. When I get money I can go back to my home. It has been hard finding work here. If I keep crossing over I'm afraid something bad will happen to me," David, an 18 years old detainee told RI. In this detention center, which is actually a police station and prison, detainees are fed one meal a day and sleep outside on the ground. Men, women, and children who are found crossing into South Africa from Zimbabwe are taken to the detention center. Women and children are deported immediately to avoid spending the night in prison.

The journey to South Africa to Zimbabwe can be very dangerous and expensive. Edward, a 23-year-old man with whom RI spoke told of the expense in trying to migrate to South Africa. "You must pay someone to get the right route to get in safely." He explained that it usually costs 300 South African Rand or $500 Zimbabwe dollars (roughly 31 US dollars) and "if you don't pay they turn you in". Once Edward arrived in Messina he was going to find work and send money back to his younger siblings and grandmother so they could eat and attend school (he's the oldest sibling in the family and his parents are dead). But while he was walking along the road looking for work a white man gave him a lift and said he would take him to the nearest farm. Instead he took Edward straight to the police station; he was going to be deported back to Zimbabwe the next day.

One barefoot young man that RI spoke with explained the perilous journey to get to South Africa as well as the difficulties he faces as a Zimbabwean in South Africa. When he arrived in Messina from Zimbabwe his identity papers and shoes were stolen. He talked about the many people who cross the river and get killed by crocodiles. But he said, "We [Zimbabweans] have to get money and food somehow."

Those individuals who do not get caught, detained, and deported by the police have different experiences. RI spoke with three young men on the side of the road who had walked all day to get to Messina from Zimbabwe and had not yet eaten. They were all trying to secure employment on the farms in South Africa near the border. "We need a job. We need food," the three young men told RI. When asked if they were to be deported would they come back to South Africa, they, in unison, said yes and emphasized that they have no other choice. Even if they do find work on a South African farm they are sometimes treated poorly and not paid. According to the director of Legal Services in Messina, many illegal immigrants work for six months on the farms without pay. Then, despite verbal agreements that they will be paid on their last day of work, the farm owner calls the police prior to providing their wages and has them deported.

This type of migration demonstrates how determined individuals are to survive, making the movement inevitable. RI met three boys aged 20, 18, and 16 who were brothers. The three of them came through the river to South Africa a few days before. Their parents had died and they wanted to build their lives in South Africa because they are unable to make a living in Zimbabwe. They want to try to find work on a farm. They sleep in the bush at night because they have nowhere to stay and can't afford to pay for a hotel room. "If we get caught by the police and get deported we will come back to South Africa again," they said.

Given the current levels of political instability, economic turmoil and hunger prevalent in their country, Zimbabweans will continue to make the dangerous and perilous journey. Each Zimbabwean will determine for himself or herself if the risk is worth it. Reports continue to stream in about the government's lack of political will to feed starving Zimbabweans and that the government is deliberately withholding food from certain populations.

The Refugee Research Programme of the University of the Witwatersrand has just released a report entitled "Emergency Preparedness in South Africa: Twenty-Four Lessons from the Zimbabwean Elections," commissioned by the National Consortium of Refugee Affairs with support from the Foundation for Human Rights. The report tries to address the level of preparedness of South Africa for a sudden influx of refugees.

The situation in Messina, and the stories of the Zimbabweans there, demonstrates the fine line between economic migration and refugee flows. The migrants are on a desperate search for employment so that they and their families can survive. Yet the conditions that they are fleeing in Zimbabwe include political persecution, systems of economic management, and internal food distribution systems that are biased against certain political and ethnic groups. Refugees International continues to monitor the situation in Zimbabwe and to advocate for increased food assistance and unbiased food distribution. In addition, RI continues to hold discussions with South African officials on the level of emergency preparedness in the event of a large influx of Zimbabweans to their country.