Evicting refugees spreads epidemic

Humanitarian organisations assisting Zimbabwean refugees in Musina have warned that the closure of the showground—a large open field near the border where 3 000 to 4 000 Zimbabweans queue to apply for asylum and seek refuge at night—could worsen the spread of cholera and other diseases.

Jacob Matakanye, director for the Musina legal advice office, said “It was easy for us to access the refugees and help them when they were at the showground; it was better because they were organised and could be controlled, unlike now when they are scattered all over and left loose.”

Last week the Department of Home Affairs in Musina removed refugees from the showground and ordered all supportive activities to stop. Humanitarian organisations including Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Save the Children, Musina legal advice office and various local churches had been providing food, clean drinking water, access to healthcare and legal advice to Zimbabwean nationals.

As the health system in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate, more Zimbabweans are coming to South Africa to seek medical care. Upon arrival in South Africa they go to the Refugee Reception Office at the showground to apply for asylum. However, due to long queues, they often wait for weeks, and even months, to get their asylum papers. With no papers and nowhere to go they stay at the open field at the showground.

MSF field coordinator Sara Hjalmarsson said they have been seeing at least 2 000 Zimbabwean refugees a month at their mobile clinics at the showground, including a lot of women who have been raped while crossing the border. They are also treating a high number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, tuberculosis, diarrhoea and pregnant women.

Nyaradzo Maphumo (23) came to the showground in January when she was nine months pregnant. “Most clinics are not working in Zimbabwe. Those that are have no equipment; you have to have at least R5 000 and bring your own equipment, such as towels, bandages, gloves and staff for stitching, then they can provide you service to give birth,” explains Maphumo.

With only R150 in her pocket, Maphumo decided to come to South Africa and seek asylum, hoping she could receive her documents in time to get healthcare for herself and her unborn child. “I stayed at the showground while I was waiting for the papers because I had nowhere else to go and only had R50 left after using R100 for transport fare. I went to the MSF mobile clinic where they helped get my papers and provided me with healthcare until it was time to give birth and they transferred me to Musina hospital.”

Maphumo breathed a sigh of relief when she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Diana, a week ago.

In the pouring rain men and women sit around small fires outside the showground, using small piles of luggage as seating or cushioning for their backs. Little kids, barely dressed despite the cold weather, walk about, playing with used condoms they find on the ground. Police patrol the area, questioning and demanding the refugees to move their possessions—which have spilled two centimetres onto the road—off the road and show some identification.

Desperate and scared, many refugees make their way to the Musina Legal Office where they stand in a queue outside and wait for assistants. A white van stops and piecework for 10 men who can do plumbing is offered. They push and shove trying to hand in their permits to the employer, desperately pleading for him to take more. Those left behind walk to nearby townships; others walk down to the Uniting Reform Church to seek shelter there for a few days.

Hjalmarsson said MSF are concerned that moving refugees from the showground forces the refugees to hide, resulting in them being unable to access healthcare. “All we are asking is for the government to allow us to help the refugees and provide them with healthcare and other assistance. Kicking refugees out of the showground with no alternative assistants does not resolve the problem, but simply relocates it.”

Home affairs spokesperson Siobhan McCarthy said the decision to move the asylum seekers’ centre was based on the unhygienic conditions the refugees were living in, adding that the site was always supposed to be used only as a temporary arrangement.