/ 19 September 2007

Zim kids endure harrowing trip to SA

Economic crisis, hunger and the impact of Aids are pushing Zimbabwean children as young as seven to risk exploitation and walk alone or in small groups into South Africa, aid group Save the Children said on Wednesday.

Hungry, tired and often orphaned, the children come in hope of food, work or schooling. More often, they end up being exploited by unscrupulous guides or employers and end up living in squatter camps or rubbish dumps, the agency said.

”They are definitely chronically malnourished,” Save the Children spokesperson Dominic Nutt said by telephone from near South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe.

”They have swollen stomachs and ripped clothes. They look a lot younger than they really are. But they still see South Africa as the Promised Land despite everything.”

Economic crisis, drought, runaway inflation currently at 6 600% and one of Southern Africa’s worst HIV epidemics have led millions of weary Zimbabweans to move to more stable neighbouring countries.

The aid group estimates about 1 500 underage Zimbabweans cross into South Africa each year.

Based on a survey of 130 such children in Johannesburg and near the borders with Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the group said one quarter had already been returned to their native lands at once but managed to get out again.

”The seven-year-olds won’t usually be coming across on their own,” said Nutt. ”But they might be coming across in groups of four with 10- and 11-year-olds. They are being taken across mainly by local guides — which is a euphemism for thugs who beat and exploit them.”

Half the children said they had paid a bribe to get across the border, while 14% said they had been assaulted.

With many of the children lacking documentation, only one in three surveyed had found a place at schools and most were forced to work, Save the Children said.

South African officials have struggled to cope with the influx.

Save the Children said it hoped to set up shelters along the border where young Zimbabweans — and other needy children including South Africans — could be cared for and schooled.

”These children are coming and we have to deal with that,” Nutt said. ”We don’t need to go criticising the South African government — they are still trying to build housing for South Africans.” — Reuters