- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2007

MUSINA, South Africa — Hundreds of destitute Zimbabwean refugees jam this former mining town, the first stop after a perilous journey from their homeland marked by the risk of electrocution, bandits or deportation.

Most camp out in the bush or live as squatters on the edge of townships, unable to earn a living legally. They are blamed for a massive wave of petty crime and theft. Unless they get deported by the border police, however, none ever contemplate going back.

Like the thousands of others who trekked across the border this month, Kudakwashe Vandira brought nothing but the clothes he was wearing and the vague hope of a better life.

What little spare cash he saved up was stolen by gangsters known as “guma guma.”

“We paid someone [$14] to take us from the Zimbabwean side to the South African side, but then we met robbers and they took all our money,” said Mr. Vandira, 20, a jobless builder who sought work to support his elderly mother back home.

“They had a pistol and clubs, and they beat my friend, so his tooth has been knocked loose. Yes, it’s a risk but it is better than being in Zimbabwe.”

Most new arrivals in Musina, the first place reached after a 12-hour trudge from the border, continue to Johannesburg and other big cities. But others like Mr. Vandira stay in Musina, stranded because they lack the money for the fare.

With Zimbabwe slipping deeper into economic crisis — characterized by 4,500 percent inflation and growing shortages of basic foods and fuel — the flow of migrants has grown from a trickle to a flood.

So severe is the problem that the United Nations and South African government began drawing up contingency plans for a sudden mass exodus of people over the border.

The issue is highly sensitive for the South African government, since granting refugee status to immigrants would give them an automatic right to stay in the country. It would also acknowledge that the situation in Zimbabwe had reached a crisis point, something that President Thabo Mbeki’s African National Congress-led administration has long refused to recognize.

Last week, the Zimbabwean government was forced to back down from its disastrous campaign to force businesses to slash their prices by half, after a wave of panic-buying across the country cleared the shelves of every supermarket, and companies were driven close to bankruptcy.

Zimbabwe also suffers a severe drought, and the World Food Program raised its estimate of the number of people there needing aid from 300,000 to 1 million.

There are no reliable figures for the number of people crossing the border illegally, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they are coming in the hundreds, if not thousands, every day. One recent report suggests that South African border police are arresting and deporting 500 daily.

An estimated 3 million Zimbabweans — nearly a quarter of the population — are thought to be already residing in South Africa.

Musina itself has the feel of a gold-rush town as local businesses grow rich on the back of Zimbabwe’s misery.

Zimbabweans with the proper paperwork cross the border every day to buy staples such as bread and fuel, which are unavailable at home and cost many times the normal price in the neighboring country. A new four-lane highway being built between Musina and the border crossing is testament to the flourishing trade along the route.

The profile of those coming over is changing, however, according to Hannes Nel, whose fruit farm is near the border. “Before, it was men looking for work,” he said. “Now it’s family groups, women with children, even old people. It’s all sorts.”

Official efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants seem limited on both sides. The border is marked by three impressive-looking fences, including an electric one in the middle, but it is easily evaded by pushing sticks under it until wires touch and it short-circuits.

No border guards patrol the Zimbabwean side, while there are widespread reports of illegal immigrants paying South African soldiers and police to look the other way as they cross.

Despite dramatic reports of immigrants wading through fast-flowing waters while dodging crocodiles and hippos, the mighty Limpopo River, along which the border runs, is not a real barrier. For 10 months of the year the Limpopo is virtually dry, and all the immigrants have to do is walk across its sandy bed.

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