- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The International Organization for Migration has opened a reception site near the Zimbabwe-Botswana border, as neighboring countries push Zimbabwean refugees back into the economically ruined and violence scarred country they attempted to flee.

About 4,000 Zimbabwean migrants are deported from Botswana every month, according to the IOM, and they need help.

Violence is on the rise in Zimbabwe, as the government cracks down on political opposition before June 27 runoff elections, in which President Robert Mugabe is attempting to extend his 28-year rule.

Migration of Zimbabweans across Africa is nothing new, said James Elder, spokesman for UNICEF in Zimbabwe.

“It’s not a bizarre situation in Africa,” he said, adding that the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe is about 70 percent. “People move around to find work - that’s what you do.”

Zimbabweans leave their country for a variety of reasons. According to the 2008 UNICEF Humanitarian Action Report, one in five adults is HIV-positive; 1.6 million children, or one in four, are orphaned; and the country has the highest inflation in the world, where a loaf of bread costs millions of Zimbabwean dollars.

For those Zimbabweans who flee to their prosperous neighbor without proper documentation, however, the trip ends right where it began, and so the new IOM center opened May 30 to help repatriated migrants, said Erin Foster, information and communications officer for IOM in Zimbabwe.

“We offer transportation, hot meals, basic information on safe migration,” she said. “Most often, people are very interested in receiving food assistance, in addition to transportation.”

The Plum Tree center also provides information on HIV/AIDS. According to UNICEF, HIV-related illnesses kill 3,000 Zimbabweans per week.

“It’s quite important, because migrants and people who are on the move are at more risk of contracting HIV than those [who] stay in any given community,” Ms. Foster said. “Because of their mobility and legal and social status, they often lack access” to medical services.

Mr. Elder of UNICEF agreed.

“In the Western world, HIV is no longer a death sentence. People expect to live a long, healthy life,” he said. “That’s not the case in Zimbabwe. Only 10 percent of people have access to the drugs they need … so obviously there’s an enormous gap.”

IOM operates another center in Beitbridge, near the South African border. While the Plum Tree center hasn’t been open long enough to form any reliable generalizations, Ms. Foster said the majority of those seeking assistance at the Beitbridge center are men aged 18-24.

The Plum Tree center is run with support from Population Services International, UNAIDS and UNICEF, among others. It is funded by the Swedish International Development Agency.

As of May 31, 2006, the center in Beitbridge has aided more than 206,000 Zimbabwean migrants, according to an IOM press release.

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