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South Africa: Concerns over ban on Zimbabwean refugees

Churches and human rights groups in South Africa are expressing concern over the South African government's announcement  on 2 September that it plans to withdraw a special permit granted to thousands of Zimbabweans, allowing them to reside in the country without documents.

"After December 31, all undocumented Zimbabweans will be treated the same way and will start being expelled," said a spokesman for the South African government.

Fr Mario Tessarotto, Scalabrinian missionary in Cape Town who works with  refugees from other African countries, said: "The Zimbabwean refugees with whom I have spoken are very concerned about the regularization measure decided on by the South African
government, as the situation in their country has not changed."

"South Africa and Zimbabwe have very complex relationships involving the ruling parties in their respective countries, I think this measure will be difficult to implement. The ANC, the party in power, is divided between a populist current, sympathetic to the position of the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who supports the return of refugees, and another that wants to maintain good relations with the United States. The latter current fears that the expulsion of refugees may harm relations with Washington,
especially on economic terms."

There is a strong community of Zimbabweans living in South Africa - about one and a half million people who left their country to escape hunger and political persecution.

"Zimbabwe was once considered the breadbasket of Southern Africa; some people even called it the Switzerland of Africa. The economic policy of its leadership has plunged the country downwards, now making it among one of the poorest nations in the world with a massive unemployment rate and a crumbling agricultural economy that has forced Zimbabwe to have to import food from abroad," said Fr Mario.

The presence of a high number of refugees from Zimbabwe, as well as  immigrants from other countries like Mozambique, has led to tensions with the South African population and resulted in several violent episodes which have been condemned by the Catholic Church in South Africa.

"We missionaries tried to calm tempers and to promote development projects to benefit both refugees and South Africans, to make them understand that the Zimbabweans did not come to "steal their jobs." For example, we help 2,500 Zimbabweans in De Doorns, a farming village in the Cape Province, where there are still incidents of violence against them. Just a few days ago, two Zimbabwean citizens were killed," said Fr Mario.

Several South African human rights organizations have expressed their opposition to the order revoking the special permit of residence out of concern for a possible revival of political violence in Zimbabwe, on the occasion of 2011 elections.

Source: Fides