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Zimbabwe exodus to South Africa continues

Asylum seekers at a centre in Musina, Limpopo
Desperate Zimbabweans come into South Africa illegally daily to escape poverty

By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Musina

More than a year after the signing of a power-sharing deal aimed at rescuing Zimbabwe's shattered economy, young people are still leaving the country in droves, seeking a better life in South Africa.

"Not much has changed in Zimbabwe over the past year," says 21-year-old Blessed Rugaru, a day after arriving in South Africa from the eastern Zimbabwean city of Mutare.

Brian Ngovu wants asylum in South Africa
If I can get papers for asylum I can get a good job
Zimbabwean Brian Ngovu, 17

She has left behind her parents, who have both lost their jobs.

Zimbabwe's economy has stopped its freefall - mainly because the government has adopted foreign currencies instead of the worthless Zimbabwe dollar.

But this means that those without access to hard currency are in a desperate situation.

The Red Cross has launched an appeal to aid some 220,000 people - mainly in rural areas - it says have no access to money from abroad.

And so those who can send South African rand back to to their families are increasingly valuable.

"There is nowhere to work in Zimbabwe - even if you are educated there are just no jobs," says Brian Ngovu, 17.

They are some of hundreds of Zimbabweans waiting in long queues to be served at a refugee reception centre in Musina in Limpopo Province.

It opened its doors in July 2008 to deal with the thousands of Zimbabwean asylum-seekers then camping out in an open field in the border town.

There are three refugee centres in South Africa and the Limpopo centre, close to the Beit Bridge border post, receives the largest number of people - about 350-400 new asylum applications daily.

"The trends have not changed, we are still seeing the same large groups of people coming here as before the elections last year," says a senior official at the centre.

He refuses to give his name in case he gets "into trouble for speaking to the media".

Queuing for change

The halls and corridors of the centre are packed; the air is warm and stuffy and there is very little conversation as people wait their turn.

Migrants, most of them from Zimbabwe, at an entrance of a refugee centre in Johannesburg in 2008
Many applications for refugee status are turned down

Mr Ngovu is in the queue that snakes outside; beads of sweat have formed on his face.

He has had nothing to eat that day but he says he will not go home without being served - which looks unlikely to happen before the office closes.

He has been in South Africa for a year - trying to get a job but failing as he does not have legal documents.

He is living in Thohoyandou, about 100km (62 miles) from Musina, with friends who sometimes get jobs at gardeners or painters, but they never get anything long-term because they do not have papers.

"I am looking for a job here so I can help my family back home. If I can get papers for asylum I can get a good job," he says.

But unemployment is high in South Africa and he left school a year before graduating. With no official qualification, finding a job - even with legal documentation - will be difficult.

In a country of close to 50 million people, more than 23% of South Africa's citizens are without jobs.

But between three and four million Zimbabweans are believed to have already crossed into South Africa.

Xenophobic fears

Tension in some townships and informal settlements with a large number of foreigners is on the rise again, following last year's spate of xenophobic attacks.

Blessed Rugaru is a Zimbabwean asylum seeker
I want to be able to build computers from scratch and then I can fix the broken computers in my country
Zimbabwean Blessed Rugaru, 21

Some 3,000 foreign nationals, mostly Zimbabweans, were recently driven from their homes in a township outside Cape Town - their shacks were set alight and their belongings destroyed.

Ms Rugaru says fears of more attacks against Zimbabweans are never far from her mind.

"I am worried that the attacks might happen again," she says.

"Things are not good right now in Zimbabwe but I will go back, home is best."

But she is prepared to stay in South Africa as long as it takes to get her refugee papers.

"When I get asylum papers I will use them to apply for study bursaries here," she says.

"I want to be able to build computers from scratch and then I can fix the broken computers in my country."

No guarantees

Both Ms Rugara and Mr Ngovu believe the answer to their troubles is being awarded refugee status.

However, the authorities at the centre say only cases that have "merit" are considered.

"South Africa is obliged by AU [African Union] laws to give permits to refugees, but most of these people do not qualify for refugee status," the senior official explains.

"We cannot give refugee status to people who only leave their country because there are no jobs; these people are economic migrants not refugees," he says.

Although many Zimbabwean asylum requests are rejected, until its economy starts to recover, people will continue to risk their lives crossing the crocodile-infested Limpopo river to earn the hard currency their families need to buy food back home.



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