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09 Sep 2004 07:31
The South African government is denying thousands of Zimbabwean refugees their right to political asylum, says a report published on Thursday by Refugees International.
“Genuine refugees are prevented from getting asylum,” said Andrea Lari, a researcher for the organisation. “In many cases, Zimbabweans cannot even get into the appropriate office to apply for asylum.
These people are being denied their rights.”
Lari said up to 50 000 Zimbabweans were eligible for asylum.
“Of the 5 000 applications filed by Zimbabweans to date, fewer than 20 have actually received political asylum in South Africa,” he said.
“Even more troubling is the fact that few Zimbabweans are able even to apply for political asylum.”
More than 2-million Zimbabweans are currently sheltering in South Africa—about 15% of their country’s population of 13-million.
Although Zimbabweans have sought work in South Africa for decades, the numbers have swollen greatly in recent years since the economic collapse presided over by President Robert Mugabe.
Most of those in South Africa are economic migrants, without claims to refugee status.
South Africa is obliged by law to grant political asylum to those who have a reasonable fear of such violence.
But Refugees International says South African officials are preventing Zimbabweans from gaining their rightful status.
Several Zimbabwean refugees told The Guardian that they were often chased away from refugee reception centres by guards with whips.
“The guards say, ‘We don’t want to see you Zimbabweans here. Go away!’ They whip us and beat us until we run away,” said one man, who said he had been tortured in Zimbabwe.
Refugees International is also critical of the office of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) for “failing to advocate for Zimbabweans’ right to protection”.
It adds: “UNHCR staff in South Africa downplay the political crisis in Zimbabwe and show a marked tendency to dismiss the legitimacy of Zimbabweans’ overall case for asylum, making a minimal effort to provide direct protection.”
A regional UNHCR official said: “We know there is work to be done to make sure all Zimbabweans can access the refugee procedure. That is true for people of other nationalities seeking asylum here, too.”
A senior South African immigration official admitted there were problems in the way the government dealt with the flood of Zimbabwean refugees. But steps were being taken to improve the situation. “We agreed with the UNHCR to catch up with the backlog of cases of Zimbabweans seeking asylum,” said Barry Gilder, director general of South Africa’s department of home affairs.
“We are taking steps to counter corruption, and we have just agreed to set up new refugee reception centres, including one in Musina, near the border with Zimbabwe.” - Guardian Unlimited Â
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