When is a refugee not a refugee? When they flee starvation and prosecution but the world wants to look the other way.

Theoretically, refugee are those facing death if they go back. But what about those who flee because their choice is starvation or flight?According to South Africa, and the UN, the one thousand people fleeing Zimbabwe each day are not “refugees” but merely economic migrants who don’t need help.

The South African Government claims that the Zimbabweans streaming into South Africa are not refugees as they are not facing persecution in their own country; no special measures are necessary. The UNHCR agrees, adding that there is no crisis in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, 100,000 per month cross into South Africa and 86,000 were forcibly deported back again between January and May this year alone, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The revolutionary ties between South Africa and Zimbabwe go deep, perhaps too deep. It enables South Africa to use pressure to prevent the UK from interfering in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs, and allows Mbeki to claim he is using pressure to change the downhill economy and increasing tyranny in Zimbabwe, when in reality it means he is simply ignoring the problem.

An intrepid reporter went to ask the government about it, and found exactly one bureaucrat who suggested that maybe, just maybe, they would follow a 2002 policy and start building refugee camps to house the flood. Yet officially, South Africa claims there are no refugees,

“These are people who still want to go back to their country. They are not asylum seekers… Asylum seekers do not jump borders, they know where to go to seek asylum. People who jump borders are economic migrants,” the minister said.

In some ways, she is right.

These people are not seeking asylum, but jobs. And many manage to find their way to Johannesburg or other cities where they have family or friends to help them until they find a job.

Ironically, the ones who can remain in Zimbabwe are the poor rural farmers, who now that the drought is improved will simply continue their traditional lifestyle. Also staying behind are women, children, the sick and the elderly, who often are able to live only because extended family and friends working in South Africa and other countries send them food and money..

Yet as inflation increases, official wire transfers through banks that use the official exchange rate are worthless, so informal means of sending money have appeared, allowing a growing black market to exchange Euros and Rands, risking arrest or worse.

But now that the Zimbabwean government started clampind down on inflation by freezing prices, food becomes unavailable at any price. One result is more refugees, as  the BBC reports.
Those first to flee were often the best and the brightest, the doctors, teachers, and business owners who no longer can survive, and who are willing to work any job to stay alive. But now mothers with children and others less able to work are joining the flood of refugees with the hopes of joining family members who aleady live in South AFrica.
Yet the ability of the South African government to ignore the situation is not going to last forever.

The refugees have been raiding farms  along the border and killing stock for food, leading to farmers arranging private militias to find refugees and send them back to Zimbabwe. And the farmers decided that the best way to pressure the South African government to start caring for the refugee problem was to invite the media to see the problem…and it worked. The films showing white farmers and their men rounding up fugatives made the news in many countries,  and did alert many to how desperate those fleeing Zimbabwe have become.

Yet things will probably get worse.

As the food in Zimbabwe becames harder to find inside Zimbawe, even trips to the border to bring food home may be banned. There are reports that  the Zimbawean government may be planning to clamp down on the cross border trading.

Last month, it announced and then withdrew a directive which would have given the minister of industry and international trade powers to control the importation and export of certain goods, including essential groceries.

Although the measure was withdrawn, there is no guarantee it will not be re-introduced. There is widespread suspicion that government wants to control the supply and distribution of foodstuffs as a political tool to whip opposition supporters into line.

If this happens,  even this last lifeline of support will be gone from many families, and the flood of refugees will get worse.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes about Zimbabwe at Makaipa Blog 


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