Since the creation of the Government of National Unity in February, some reports have indicated that the situation in Zimbabwe is improving. However, a recent report from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) – No Refuge, Access Denied: Medical and Humanitarian Needs of Zimbabweans in South Africa – offers a strong counter argument. In the past three years, an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans have crossed into South Africa trying to escape from ongoing food shortages, political turmoil, and a failing health system. This flow of people has not ceased with the new government. On the contrary, the report states, “Zimbabweans continue to cross the border every day, legally and illegally, in massive numbers as a matter of survival."
The journey across the border from Beitbridge, Zimbabwe to Musina, South Africa is a treacherous one. Many refugees are attacked, robbed, and beaten by bandits, Zimbabwean soldiers, and even policemen. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to attack and sexual assault. Furthermore, the refugees’ difficulties do not end with their arrival in Musina, as many of them struggle to find shelter, safety, and health care. In April 2009, in response to increases in reported sexual violence, MSF opened a clinic in Musina to deal with the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
South Africa’s response to Zimbabwean refugees has been fairly hostile. Historically, the government has viewed the refugees as ‘economic migrants,’ deporting them whenever possible. It has also been reluctant to grant asylum to many of the refugees. And while the government recently took steps to better respond to the crisis, creating a special one-year permit and 90 day ‘visa-free entry’ for Zimbabweans, the report notes that little real progress has been made, leaving thousands of Zimbabweans in limbo and vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment.
Despite a provision in the South African constitution that guarantees free primary health services for all, including refugees and asylum seekers, MSF workers report that most Zimbabweans are being refused treatment. An MSF nurse based in Johannesburg remarked:
The stories of our patients are truly shocking. I’m talking about pregnant women, unconscious or critically ill patients, even a six-year-old girl who had been raped, who were all refused the medical care they urgently required.
This report, which sheds light on the continued suffering of Zimbabweans, should not be ignored. Hopefully, it will motivate the governments of Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as U.N. agencies, to better respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Photo: In March 2009, South African authorities forcibly removed thousands of Zimbabweans from Musina Showground. MSF/Sara Hjalmarsson