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South Africa

Migrants face humanitarian crisis on South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe

© UNICEF Video
On a visit to the South African border town of Musina, UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman talks with young mothers who have fled Zimbabwe and are waiting for jobs and papers.

By Shantha Bloemen

MUSINA, South Africa, 22 January 2009 – A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the South African border town of Musina. Historically the transit point for migrants seeking work in the country’s larger cities, it has now become the entry point for many desperate Zimbabweans fleeing the economic and social collapse in their country.

UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman recently visited the area, touring the town’s ‘showgrounds’, the first stop for many who cross the border seeking asylum. With 300 permits granted a day, the facility has become a makeshift camp for thousands of waiting migrants.

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“On our visit we have been looking at the issue of people coming in from Zimbabwe, waiting for their papers,” Ms. Veneman said after being briefed by the local authorities and speaking with asylum seekers. “We’ve had a chance to talk to many of the mothers who have children here about why they’re coming here, and it’s looking for a better life.”

With support from UNICEF, Save the Children has set up a safe space in Musina for mothers with young children. It provides them with food, toys and a place to wait while their papers are processed by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Dangers for women and children

Betty and her sister, both with young infants, saw no other option than to cross the border. They risked wading through the Limpopo River before climbing under the electric fence that demarcates the border.

© UNICEF Video
The border area, now supporting thousands of refugees from Zimbabwe, already suffered from a shortage of services as a homeland area under apartheid.

“In Zimbabwe, there is hunger. We can’t support ourselves, and that is why we brought our babies here. There is no food, money is a problem, work is a problem, we can’t find jobs,” explained Betty, clutching her six-month-old daughter, Brandy. Betty plans to travel to Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, and stay with a friend until she can find work. 

More and more unaccompanied children are also crossing the border. Some have been beaten, mugged or abused by the violent gangs that prey on those who informally cross over. Many of the children are orphaned, hungry and extremely vulnerable. Most of them survive on small amounts of money gained through piecemeal jobs, begging and stealing. 

“Unaccompanied Zimbabwean children are unable to get asylum permits because they are coming in on their own,” explained the Director of Programmes at Save the Children UK, Lynette Mudekunye. “Our estimate is that there are 1,000 unaccompanied children in this small little town and many more in the farming communities around.”

Lack of basic services

As the northernmost town in South Africa, Ms. Mudekunye explained, Musina “is far away from big urban centres, and it was in a homeland area during apartheid, so services were generally very poor.”

© UNICEF Video
UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman and Lynette Mudekunye of Save the Children in a shelter for children who have crossed the border unaccompanied.

She continued: “When we started working in the district, there was one social worker for the whole municipality. Although that has grown to five, it is still very inadequate even for the South African children in the community. There are villages where children are walking 30 km to get to secondary school.”

Ms. Mudekunye added that Musina, which is on a trucking route, is also in an area that has been hit by HIV and AIDS.

No end of flight in sight

To cope with the numbers of migrants, church groups and NGOs have set up drop-in centres and shelters around town.

During her visit, Ms. Veneman visited a shelter, housed in a former police trailer on the outskirts of town, where 20 boys live together and get three meals a day. She heard from many of the boys that they were eager to continue learning and wanted to go back to school.

As humanitarian conditions in Zimbabwe appear set to worsen, there is a consensus that more and more people will seek refuge in South Africa. So it will be critical to carry on and strengthen the work of protecting children, and to ensure that opportunities for them to continue their education are in place.

UNICEF South Africa has appealed for $1.4 million to scale up its response – especially in the areas of water, sanitation, hygiene, education and child protection – for women and children in the border areas.




10 January 2009: UNICEF correspondent Guy Hubbard reports on the situation of Zimbabwean migrants in the South African border town of Musina.
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