Believed to be between 1,2m and 3m people crossing the border, the SA government does not have a reliable estimate of immigrants in the country

Namhla Tshisela

Namhla Tshisela

The South African government is guilty of violating the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and of contravening international laws.

This is according to a report released this month by the University of the Witwatersrand-based Forced Migration Studies Programme and the Musina Legal Aid Office.

Titled Fact or Fiction? Examining Zimbabwean Cross-Border Migration into South Africa, the report highlights misconceptions about the migration of Zimbabweans into South Africa and the ill-treatment of migrants at the Beit Bridge border post.

The report claims that: "Almost no Zimbabweans claim asylum at Beit Bridge because, in contrast to other nationalities, the officials there do not provide them with an opportunity to make such a claim, opting instead to simply send them back across the border.

"By supporting the notion that all Zimbabweans are economic refugees or illegal migrants, Home Affairs officials in Pretoria tacitly condone the illegal activities of their junior officials."

These claims imply that the government is guilty of "contravening the most fundamental principle of international refugee law: non-refoulement".

Also of concern was the Department of Home Affairs' "denial" of the prevalence of "legitimate asylum seekers" from Zimbabwe in South Africa.

"The Home Affairs claim is particularly problematic because it is backed by an appeal to statistical evidence: that only one Zimbabwean claimed asylum at the Beit Bridge border post between January 1 and June 30 2007."

This statement was in response to the assertion by the department in August that out of 1917 applications for asylum from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Ethiopia, "only one person from Zimbabwe is recorded as having applied for asylum at this port of entry".

Based on this finding the department ruled that "calls for the establishment of refugee camps would thus seem to be misplaced. Significantly, neither the United Nations International Children's Educational Fund nor the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has indicated the existence of an influx of refugees in South Africa."

The report also tests claims and misconceptions that South Africans have about the influx of Zimbabweans into South Africa.

The report refers to this migration as the "first time that post-apartheid South Africa has faced people fleeing from political crises and economic deprivation in one of its most immediate neighbours".

The way that citizens handle the flow of refugees and asylum seekers could disregard their commitment to entrenching and respecting fundamental human rights. The government's failure to deal with crises in neighbouring countries could have a negative influence on its international standing.

"South Africa's response to these crises is a test of the country's ability to develop policy and practices that are empirically based, legally informed, and that effectively protect the human dignity of migrants and South African citizens.

"The current scenario is the first real 'test case' for the government of its policies on mass forced migration; and will impact heavily on future attempts to address this recurring regional dilemma."

Therefore, the report argues that "there is a need to generate meaningful and practical insights into migration issues at the Zimbabwean border and in surrounding countries".

l Additional reporting by Themba Molefe.