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UNICEF appeals for help as asylum-seekers flee Zimbabwe for South Africa

UNICEF Image: Zimbabwe, Musina, asylum-seekers
© UNICEF South Africa/2008/ Bloemen
Zimbabweans wait for their asylum permit in Musina showground in South Africa's Limpopo province. They are the latest of thousands of asylum-seekers who’ve crossed the border as the crisis in their country deepens.

By Shantha Bloemen

MUSINA BORDER, South Africa, 5 January 2008 – Women and children sit on a patch of grass under one of a few leafy trees that lessen the heat from the harsh midday sun. They are among the most recent asylum-seekers who are flooding across the border from Zimbabwe.

The Musina showground, in South Africa’s Limpopo province has been converted to handle the influx and UNICEF and its partners are working to make sure that the rights and health of children, especially those who are unaccompanied, are protected.

Four Department of Home Affairs mobile trucks, equipped with computers, are parked in the middle of the grounds. Inside, emigration officials are processing papers for a three-month asylum permit. With the recent outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe, the Government of South Africa has suspended deportations.

In search of work

With a permit, Rutendo, who has brought her three-year-old daughter Lisa, hopes to find work as a hairdresser in Johannesburg. Although unlikely to get full refugee status, she wants to earn enough money to send back to her other three children in Zimbabwe.

She left home three days earlier with only a change of clothes for her and her daughter.  “I was desperate to find some type of job to feed my children. They are hungry and I have no way to feed them,” she said.  

Most assessments indicate a dramatic increase in the numbers of asylum-seekers in recent months as the crisis in Zimbabwe has worsened. Among those fleeing are a growing number of unaccompanied children. Recent estimates indicate it could be as high as 1,000 a month.

Unaccompanied children

A UNICEF report released last month – ‘Immediate needs of women and children affected by the cholera outbreak’ – notes that Save the Children found an estimated 2,800 unaccompanied children in the Musina area. Approximately 92 per cent of these children are living on the street or in other dangerous places.

Many arrive alone, hoping to go to a city where they can find a job or search for a relative. Young girls are often sexually exploited or taken in as domestic workers. 

The majority of children interviewed for the Save the Children assessment survive on small amounts of money gained through small jobs, begging or stealing. As they cross the border and stay illegally, they are at great risk of harassment, sexual exploitation, arrest and illness.

In previous years, many of the children who were identified crossing the border were deported to Zimbabwe, where the International Organization for Migration and Save the Children, with UNICEF support, would attempt to reunify them with their families. For many children, though, the reunification was short-lived. Faced with poverty and hunger, they would cross the border again.

Now, without enough social workers on either side of the border to handle the growing caseload or a proper tracing system to identify and track these children, many are being left to fend for themselves.

Child-friendly spaces

In December, UNICEF and Save the Children child protection specialists from Zimbabwe and South Africa met in Musina to discuss the growing crisis.

“Since many children are on their own, UNICEF's priority is to make sure that they receive all the support they need and are well protected,” said UNICEF Deputy Representative in South Africa Malathi Pillai.

Plans are under way to set up child-friendly spaces as well as provide educational and recreational activities for children waiting for their asylum permits. To cope with the growing numbers of street children in Musina, additional support will be provided to the drop-in centres, where children come for a hot meal and a wash. 

Three 'Advice Service Centres' also will be established in villages and farming areas along the Zimbabwe border. Children will receive legal advice, information on health, and basic food and hygiene packages to help them cope in their new environment.

With the tide of people, including children, fleeing into South Africa unlikely to end soon, UNICEF South Africa has just appealed for $1.4 million to better provide water, sanitation, hygiene, education and protection for women and children affected by the crisis.



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