New Internationalist

Zimbabwe’s refugees suffer as World Cup kicks off

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Migrants escaping dire poverty find cold comfort in neighbouring South Africa, writes Olivia Ward.

The World Cup football extravaganza is in full swing, and the slogan ‘Celebrate Africa’s Humanity is echoing all over host country South Africa.

But thousands of destitute and largely forgotten Zimbabwean refugees find little humanity, and much brutality, in the country where they have fled to escape starvation and persecution in their homeland.

For them, the US$80-and-up tickets for the games are an impossible dream, and life in the slums of South Africa’s main cities a daily nightmare.

‘Gangs prey on them when they cross the border,’ says the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres. ‘Many of them, as well as vulnerable South Africans, face further threats living in appalling conditions, particularly in derelict buildings in Johannesburg where they try to find shelter.’

‘Gangs prey on [Zimbabwean refugees] when they cross the border. Many of them face further threats living in appalling conditions, particularly in derelict buildings in Johannesburg where they try to find shelter’

MSF, which runs two projects for economic migrants and refugees in South Africa, says their plight is getting worse, even as plans were being ratcheted up for the comfort and security of international sports fans.

After an Al Qaeda militant in Baghdad said in the run-up to the World Cup that he planned to target European teams in South Africa, Pretoria’s police ministry said no effort would be spared to make the upcoming games ‘the safest and most secure FIFA World Cup.’

But, said MSF, trauma and insecurity are constant conditions for migrant Zimbabweans. In a recently released report released, it calls their situation ‘dire and unacceptable’, urging South Africa to control escalating sexual violence by roving gangs on the border, provide safe and sanitary shelters for refugees in cities, and give them greater access to badly needed health care.

‘I crossed the border through the river because I didn’t have documents,’ said one 28-year-old Zimbabwean woman. ‘The (gangs) assaulted me and raped me several times. In Johannesburg I moved to an abandoned building after I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Since then I’m sharing a room with 11 people and paying a rent of $9.60.’

In the slums of Johannesburg, the report said, Zimbabweans have been harassed by police, and some have had their shacks in outlying areas destroyed and looted. Many are living in abandoned buildings that are controlled by slum landlords who extort money for shelters that often lack running water and basic services.

‘The quantity of rubbish is growing every day,’ one man told MSF. ‘You can see and hear rats moving around all the time. Can you imagine that here children are walking and playing and in this room next to the rubbish lives a baby just a few days old?’

South Africa – in a deep recession with dramatic divisions between rich and poor – has been unable to provide for its own impoverished people although it is wealthy compared with neighbouring Zimbabwe

South Africa – in a deep recession with dramatic divisions between rich and poor – has been unable to provide for its own impoverished people although it is wealthy compared with neighbouring Zimbabwe.

But it is counting on thousands of global football fans to boost its flagging economy, and has splashed out $5 billion to prepare for the World Cup event.

It has also pledged $112 billion over the next three years for upgrading its roads and transit infrastructure. Meanwhile, 50 per cent of citizens – and many more newcomers – live below the poverty line.

Some of the hardest hit are refugees who struggle across the Zimbabwean border without documents. Although Zimbabwe has a new national unity government, it is largely controlled by strongman President Robert Mugabe, services have collapsed, and its standard of living is dangerously low.

‘The level of violence (migrants) face crossing the border is really brutal,’ said Giuseppe Demola, MSF project coordinator in the border town of Musina. ‘Women and girls are sexually abused by criminal gangs. They also force men to abuse women, and there are lots of examples where migrants are forced to have sex with close relatives in front of their children.’

There are 300 migrants applying for asylum in South Africa every day, Demola said. From 25 cases of sexual assault a month last year, his team is now treating more than 70. ‘They’re afraid to report to the police, and afraid to go to hospital because they are there illegally,’ he said in a phone interview. ‘The police know the migrants are in transit, and will be moving to other places in South Africa, so they don’t want to open a case.’

Olivia Ward is Foreign Affairs Reporter for the Star newspaper in Toronto. This article has been reprinted from the Star, with permission.

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