Page last updated at 15:51 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

SA shuts Zimbabwe refugees' camp

Zimbabwean refugees get ready to sleep on the street outside the camp at the showground in Musina
Aid officials say Zimbabwe refugees in Musina have been left high and dry

Thousands of Zimbabwean refugees are stranded after authorities in South Africa moved to shut a camp sheltering them in the border town of Musina.

The refugees had fled a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe and many hoped to seek political asylum in South Africa.

The government said the refugees would be transferred to a military base, but aid officials criticised the move.

Hollywood star Matt Damon, who has just toured the camp at Musina, described the "sub-human" conditions there.

Millions of Zimbabweans have fled their country's political, economic and humanitarian crisis, with many coming to neighbouring South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse.

The outdoor refugee camp at the Musina municipal showground is home to up to 4,000 refugees, according to medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres.

South African home affairs spokeswoman Siobhan McCarthy told AFP news agency the camp, which lies a few kilometres south of the Zimbabwe border, would be closed by Friday, saying it did not provide for the refugees' needs.

US actor Matt Damon speaks with a Catholic nun from Zimbabwe who shows him a 10bn Zim dollars banknote at a church in the South African border town of Musina

"The showground is simply not designed for people to live," she said.

"There is no water, there is no ablution facilities, there's nothing there, so people cannot live there. It has already become very unhygienic."

The official's comments about the dire conditions in the camp were confirmed by Damon.

The star of the Bourne thrillers is a founder, with other celebrities such as Brad Pitt and George Clooney, of human rights organisation Not On Our Watch.

He told the BBC's Newshour programme: "They arrive to live in these conditions that are really sub-human, they're not permitted to put up any permanent structures.

"So they're basically sleeping out under the open sky and, again, still choose not to go back to Zimbabwe."

But MSF said the asylum-seekers should have been offered humanitarian and medical support.

MSF's Rachel Cohen told the BBC's Network Africa programme: "Out of nowhere and with no explanation whatsoever the department of home affairs basically is forcing a closure of the only place in Musina where Zimbabweans are safe from arrest and deportation.

"Pregnant women, women with children and unaccompanied minors were removed from the location last night and as far as we know have nowhere to go."

Zimbabwe is in the grips of a cholera epidemic which has killed nearly 4,000 people and infected almost 87,000, as health services disintegrate amid the country's economic collapse.

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