- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A new round of land seizures and a crackdown on political opposition are accelerating Zimbabwe’s already-massive refugee crisis, a top migration specialist said yesterday.

Mohammed Abdiker, chief of the Zimbabwe mission for the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), said constitutional changes approved by the government of President Robert Mugabe have meant more land seizures and more refugees, many of whom have fled to the country’s neighbors in search of work.

“The government can take land at any time under the constitution, and that has a ripple effect,” said Mr. Abdiker, who had been the migration agency’s point man in Zimbabwe for more than four years. “Until the seizures stop, the refugee problem will continue.”

Mr. Abdiker said in a Washington briefing that the surging number of refugees fleeing Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown often face robbery, exploitation, rape and other hardships across the border in South Africa.

South Africa has sharply accelerated the forced return of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants, from 4,000 a month in 2004 to 15,000 a month now.

Mr. Mugabe’s government has faced international condemnation for a series of property seizures since 2000, targeting first the country’s most productive white commercial farmers and then residents of poor, largely black urban slums. Human rights groups charge that top officials of Mr. Mugabe’s government have personally profited from the expropriations.

Zimbabwe under Mr. Mugabe has gone from being the region’s breadbasket to an international economic basket case, with annual inflation topping 3,000 percent, massive food and power shortages, and unemployment estimated at 60 percent or higher. The capital city of Harare blames much of its hardship on sanctions imposed by the United States and top European countries.

Mr. Abdiker said Zimbabweans routinely report cases of abuse and exploitation when they travel illegally to South Africa, seeking work in the country’s booming construction and agriculture businesses. Without passports or other documentation, they have no legal standing to protest their treatment.

In some cases, South African employers would hire the refugees, work them for a month, then turn them into authorities the day before they were supposed to be paid.

Young Zimbabwean girls have been lured to Johannesburg with promises of employment, only to be forced into prostitution. Some Zimbabwean women have been found working in brothels as far away as Egypt and Vietnam.

The IOM official said his agency had received generally good cooperation from the Mugabe government in handling the return of illegal immigrants from South Africa and elsewhere. The agency provides counseling, health care, meals and a bus ride home for those forced to return from South Africa.

South Africa has been criticized for not challenging Mr. Mugabe’s increasingly authoritarian rule and economic policies, but there is growing unhappiness in Pretoria with the flood of illegal immigrants coming from Zimbabwe. South African President Thabo Mbeki acknowledged this month that many of the returned refugees were back in South Africa within weeks.

While the IOM is nonpartisan, Mr. Abdiker said the only long-term solution to the problem was major economic and political reform inside Zimbabwe.

“There is no way you are going to stop illegal immigration or internal migration until there is a major change in Zimbabwe itself,” he said.

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