UNHCR calls S Africa not to deport Zimbabwean

Published on Thursday 10th July 2008

Geneva: The U.N. refugee agency urged South Africa on Friday to stop mass deportations of Zimbabwean migrants, since some of those deported may be asylum seekers who have fled violence and political persecution at home.

South Africa has deported some 17,000 Zimbabweans in the last 40 days alone through the main border crossing at Beit Bridge, despite the UNHCR's appeal in late May, the agency said.

"Our concern is that with these refugees who are fleeing political violence and upheaval in Zimbabwe, they could be at risk of being sent back to danger if they are caught up in this large-scale deportation," Jennifer Pagonis of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told a news briefing.

President Robert Mugabe claimed victory in a presidential run-off vote on June 27, boycotted by opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai because of campaign violence.

Since then, a growing number of Zimbabwean families have crossed into South Africa "as a result of political violence, with several people showing signs of beatings or torture", Pagonis said.

Zimbabwean political activists, teachers, journalists and others targeted for their real or perceived political views are among those who have fled, she said.

The UNHCR had no overall figures, as it said many new arrivals enter South Africa through unauthorised border points.

"They are fearful of arrest and deportation and they remain underground, making them vulnerable to other forms of violence and exploitation such as rape and robbery," Pagonis said.

Traditionally, many Zimbabweans have failed to register as refugees in South Africa because they want to earn an income and cross back and forth over the border freely, she said.

But 3,000 to 4,000 Zimbabweans now approach the refugee registration office in Johannesburg each Thursday and Friday, the days set aside for Zimbabwean asylum seekers, she said.

"We continue to urge South Africa to exceptionally grant Zimbabweans a temporary legal status allowing them to stay in the country," Pagonis said.

Some 700 Zimbabwean asylum seekers have arrived in Botswana since March, against 38 in Zambia, according to UNHCR. Several hundred have been spotted in Mozambique's border provinces.

Some 1.5-3 million Zimbabweans have left their homeland in recent years and are scattered in southern Africa, it says.