Forced Closure of Refugee Area Further Endangers Zimbabweans in South Africa

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Tim Shenk
Press Officer
Direct: 212-763-5764
E-mail: tim.shenk@newyork.msf.org

Forced Closure of Refugee Area Further Endangers Zimbabweans in South Africa

Johannesburg/New York - The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without
Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today denounced the decision by
South African authorities to close the ‘showground', a large open field
in Musina town near the border with Zimbabwe, where 3,000 - 4,000
Zimbabweans line up to apply for asylum and seek refuge every night.
The closure of the showgrounds demonstrates a flagrant disregard for
the humanitarian and protection needs of Zimbabweans seeking refuge in
South Africa, and will have extremely negative consequences as no
allowances have been made to ensure their access to shelter, food, or
medical assistance.

Every day, Zimbabweans cross the Limpopo River into South Africa,
risking their lives to flee political instability, economic meltdown,
food insecurity, and health system collapse in their country. Since
July 2008, tens of thousands of Zimbabweans have applied for asylum at
the South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA) "Refugee Reception
Office" at the showground, but only a fraction have been granted asylum
and there have been regular bottlenecks, creating a large concentration
of people living in inhumane conditions. Each month, MSF provides
approximately 2,000 medical consultations for Zimbabweans at its mobile
clinic at the showground.

Despite the ongoing flow of Zimbabweans to the showground, on
Monday, March 2, the DHA announced that it would close its office by
Friday, March 6. The Department then ordered everyone to leave the
area. Although the showground does not meet minimum standards for
humanitarian assistance, it is the only place in Musina where
undocumented Zimbabweans, awaiting their papers, are safe from arrest
or deportation.

This sudden, forced closure of the showground comes just two weeks
after MSF released a report on the ongoing humanitarian and medical
crisis in Zimbabwe and called on South African authorities to halt
deportations and provide adequate humanitarian assistance for
Zimbabweans fleeing across the border.

"This ill-conceived decision by South African authorities will place
Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa at incredible risk -
especially considering that many have serious illnesses, including HIV
and tuberculosis, which cannot be properly attended to by the collapsed
Zimbabwe health system," said Rachel Cohen, MSF head of mission in
South Africa.

"Patients at our mobile clinic at the showground informed us that
many people fled Musina yesterday morning, fearing they would be
arrested or deported if they stayed," Cohen said. "Our medical teams
know from experience that the threat of deportation serves only to
force Zimbabweans into hiding, as they are too afraid to come forward
to receive the assistance they so desperately need."

On
the morning of March 3, South African authorities started dividing
Zimbabweans seeking refuge at the showground into different groups,
according to their legal status, gender, and age. Women with children,
pregnant women, and unaccompanied minors were removed from a special
location that had been established for them at the showground.

"People without asylum-seeking papers were separated into groups,
their names were recorded, and families were split up in this process,"
said Sara Hjalmarsson, MSF field coordinator in Musina. "Today, the DHA
ordered all temporary shelters to be taken down and burnt before they
would begin processing applications for approximately 1,700 people.
Tonight no-one will have anywhere to sleep. In addition to this, there
is no information on how newly arrived Zimbabweans will be able to
apply for asylum. These already vulnerable people are even more
traumatized by the uncertainty they now face," she said.

Those who had already received asylum-seeking papers, but were
remaining in the showground because they had nowhere else to go, were
told to "move on." It is likely that many of them will travel to the
Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, where there are now 5,000
Zimbabweans seeking shelter and protection, and where MSF provides
medical care for more than 2,000 Zimbabweans each month.

"We are shocked by this sudden decision, particularly as we have
been a part of numerous discussions with South African authorities, UN
agencies, and NGOs in Musina to find an acceptable solution for the
large numbers of Zimbabweans in Musina" said Cohen. "Once again, MSF
calls upon the government of South Africa to stop deportations and
provide immediate, adequate humanitarian assistance-including some form
of legal status-for Zimbabweans seeking refuge in the country."

The events in Musina began just one day after the police evicted
400 displaced refugees of different nationalities from the Akasia
(Klerksoord) shelter outside Pretoria, a makeshift camp established
after attacks of xenophobic violence displaced tens of thousands of
foreign nationals in Gauteng Province in May 2008. Police moved in on
the camp in the morning of March 3. During the police operation, shacks
set up by the camp residents were burned. The residents were taken to
various locations, including Lindela, where the majority of people have
been forced to sleep outside with no shelter or food. MSF provided
emergency medical care to the residents of Akasia following their
eviction and continues to provide mobile medical and psychological care
in the areas to which they have been relocated.

MSF has been working with Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South
Africa in both Musina and Central Johannesburg since 2007. In mid-2008,
MSF also responded to the needs of displaced foreign nationals
following the xenophobic violence, and in late-2008 provided medical
care, water and sanitation interventions, and hygiene promotion to
respond to the cross-border cholera outbreak in Musina and Johannesburg.
 

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Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international medical humanitarian organization created by doctors and journalists in France in 1971. MSF's work is based on the humanitarian principles of medical ethics and impartiality. The organization is committed to bringing quality medical care to people caught in crisis regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation.
MSF operates independently of any political, military, or religious agendas.

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