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Refugees moved from pillar to post

Resource type: News

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JOHANNESBURG – Some lie awkwardly splayed on the stairs while others sleep in a neat row outside a church in Johannesburg from where Zimbabwean refugees will soon find themselves having to relocate again.

The Methodist Church, in the city centre, has long been a popular destination for thousands of Zimbabweans fleeing their country’s political and economic woes and more recently a devastating cholera crisis.

The sheer numbers of refugees spilling out of the church as government closed down a camp in the border town of Musina, has now led local politicians to home in on the church for contravening city bylaws.

“The church and the surrounding area all are now overcrowded,” said Bishop Paul Verryn.

Desperate Zimbabweans seeking medical care or those running away from the country’s harsh economic conditions still flock into South Africa, despite the formation of a unity government in their country in February.

The new government is expected to work together to revive the economy brought to its knees by years of political turmoil, characterised by food, fuel and cash shortages.

Government was this week in the process of moving the refugees to six different sites around the city and Verryn said Thursday the United Nations refugee agency had profiled and interviewed 1,800 Zimbabweans.

He said while those conducting interviews had been gentle, and residents would still be able to use the building’s many skills training programmes, the nuances of the trauma experienced by constant movement were underestimated.

“It is very very unsettling and for some people very traumatic. They see themselves as objects. Somebody described them as a coke bottle: you pick them up and put them down in another place,” said Verryn.

This week the non-governmental organisation Lawyers for Human Rights sought to declare unlawful an immigrant detention centre at a military base in Musina that deports up to 15,000 people a month.

“For much of last year there were no toilet facilities and there are still no beds or enough food for detainees to eat,” spokeswoman Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh said in a statement.

“Children are also kept in these conditions before being deported back to Zimbabwe to either face the humanitarian catastrophe in that country or risk the dangerous walk across the Limpopo River back to South Africa.”

Deteriorating conditions where horrific stories of rape and abuse abound have caused government to clamp down on places of refuge and set up more formal centres.

For those who do make it to Johannesburg, the church is often a first stop, and a welcome place to rest after a long day searching for work.

For refugees such as Kennedy Mayerwa, it is the hope of regaining a sense of normality that spurs them on.

“What I want is…I only want to have my own house, my own space where I can stay and my job for myself,” he said.

While a next door mall puts up spiked fences to keep out sleeping refugees, and local businesses complain about urine and litter at their front door, lying where they are not wanted is still preferable to what lies at home.

“There was no good life in Zimbabwe. There’s no food, no jobs, even if you go to school,” said a man identified only as Onward.

Related Resources


Human Rights & Reconciliation, Immigration & Migration

Global Impact:

South Africa