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Forced closure of 'Refugee Reception Office' further endangers health of vulnerable Zimbabweans in South Africa

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Johannesburg - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today denounced the decision by South African authorities to close the 'showgrounds', a large open field in Musina town near the Zimbabwe border where 3,000 to 4,000 Zimbabweans queue to apply for asylum and seek refuge each night. The closure of the showgrounds demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the humanitarian and protection needs of Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa and will have extremely negative consequences, as no allowances have been made to ensure their access to shelter, food or medical assistance. Every day, Zimbabweans cross the Limpopo River into South Africa, risking their lives to flee political instability, economic meltdown, food insecurity and health system collapse in their country.

Since July 2008, tens of thousands of Zimbabweans have applied for asylum at the South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA) "Refugee Reception Office" at the showgrounds: but only a fraction have been granted asylum and there have been regular bottlenecks, creating a large concentration of people living in inhumane conditions. Each month, MSF provides approximately 2,000 medical consultations for Zimbabweans at its mobile clinic at the showground. Despite the ongoing flow of Zimbabweans to the showground, on Monday, March 2, the DHA announced that it would close its office by Friday, March 6. The Department then ordered everyone to leave the area.

Although the showgrounds does not meet minimum standards for humanitarian assistance, it is the only place in Musina where undocumented Zimbabweans, awaiting their papers, are safe from arrest or deportation. This sudden, forced closure of the showgrounds, comes just two weeks after MSF released a report on the ongoing humanitarian and medical crisis in Zimbabwe and called on South African authorities to halt deportations and provide adequate humanitarian assistance for Zimbabweans fleeing across the border.

"This ill-conceived decision by South African authorities will place Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa at incredible risk – especially considering that many have serious illnesses, including HIV and tuberculosis, which cannot be properly attended to by the collapsed Zimbabwe health system," said Rachel Cohen, MSF's Head of Mission in South Africa. "Patients at our mobile clinic at the showground informed us that many people fled Musina yesterday morning, fearing they would be arrested or deported if they stayed. Our medical teams know from experience that the threat of deportation serves only to force Zimbabweans into hiding, as they are too afraid to come forward to receive the assistance they so desperately need."

On the morning of Tuesday, March 3, South African authorities started dividing Zimbabweans seeking refuge at the showground into different groups, according to their legal status, gender and age. Women with children, pregnant women and unaccompanied minors were removed from a special location that had been established for them at the showground.

"People without asylum-seeking papers were separated into groups, their names were recorded and families were split up in this process," said Sara Hjalmarsson, MSF Field Coordinator in Musina. "Today, the DHA ordered all temporary shelters to be taken down and burnt before they would begin processing applications for approximately 1,700 people. Tonight, no one will have anywhere to sleep. In addition to this, there is no information on how newly arrived Zimbabweans will be able to apply for asylum. These already vulnerable people are even more traumatised by the uncertainty they now face."

Those who had already received asylum-seeking papers, but were remaining in the showgrounds because they had nowhere else to go, were told to "move on." It is likely that many of them will travel to the Central Methodist Church, in Johannesburg, where there are now 5,000 Zimbabweans seeking shelter and protection, and where MSF provides medical care for more than 2,000 Zimbabweans each month.

"We are shocked with this sudden decision, particularly as we have been a part of numerous discussions with South African authorities, UN agencies and NGOs in Musina to find an acceptable solution for the large numbers of Zimbabweans in Musina" said Cohen. "Once again, MSF calls upon the government of South Africa to stop deportations and provide immediate, adequate humanitarian assistance – including some form of legal status – for Zimbabweans seeking refuge in the country."