Neighbours react to economic refugee influx
Human rights groups in the Southern African countries claim that up to a quarter of the country's 13.5 million people has already fled the country mostly to Botswana, South Africa and Mozambique.
And According to the South Africa home affairs department, up to 1000 Zimbabweans a day cross into South Africa to join the nearly two million of their compatriots already there, mostly illegally.
Those lucky enough to have a passport - and who can meet the increasingly stringent visa conditions South Africa imposes on Zimbabweans - can pass in safety through the heavily guarded border post at Beit Bridge.
The rest have to swim threough the crocodile-infested Limpopo River, between the two countries, followed by a long and dangerous hike through the bush on the other side.
In October South Africa announced for the second time in two months that it was tightening its visa requirements to curb the influx of Zimbabweans visiting that country and ease congestion at its local immigration office in the Zimbabwe's capital Harare.
Zimbabweans are now required to pay a surety cash guarantee of R1000 (US$142) or the Zimbabwe dollar equivalent. Although the local unit is officially pegged at Z$118 against the South African currency, it is trading at over Z$700 on the thriving black market. Zimbabwe is currently experiencing a foreign currency crunch in the face of a faltering export sector.
The new requirements apply to holiday as well as business travellers, said Thebogo Masilo, an official at the South African High Commission in Harare. "Those willing to pay in foreign currency must provide proof that the money was sourced from a local bank," he told NewsfromAfrica.
Most Zimbabweans especially the minority Ndebele from the southern parts of the country are lured South Africa because they share the same language and heritage with some of that country's tribes. But they, being illegal immigrants, live in constant fear of
Official figures from South Africa reveal that in 2000, 26 742 Zimbabweans were deported, 19 932 in 2001 and 18 033 last year. Illegals are becoming slippery with time, said Masilo.
Zimbabwe's other neighbour, Botswana, is erecting a 500km-long electric fence along its border to keep out animals and people, to the anger of the Zimbabwean Government, which calls the construction provocative .
Some 167 kilometres of the three-metre high fence has been erected so far, with some sections already electrified. When finished the electric fence will stretch from Maitengwe, a village north of the Botswana's second-largest city, Francistown, to Mabata, a camp next to where the two countries' border meets with that of South Africa in eastern Botswana.
Botswana hopes to finish construction this year, when immigration officers reinforced by police and army units will patrol the barrier. A Zimbabwean official in Botswana has also lashed out at the fence and condemns the structure as an insult to human rights.
Phelekeza Mphoko, Zimbabwe's high commissioner in Gaborone claimed in October that the southern African country is building its version of the Israeli security wall, a new Gaza strip to separate its northern neighbour. "People will continue to destroy the fence because it has divided families on either side of the border, he said.
But Botswana has defended the move as a legitimate response to the threat posed by diseased cattle and unemployed humans who have illegally crossed the frontier in record numbers since 2000.
We are not closing the border with Botswana, there are gazetted points of entry, said Mompati Merafhe, the foreign affairs and international co-operation minister. The construction of the fence must continue and it will continue. We have to go ahead with the fence and when need be, we will open some more border posts.
Merafhe said Botswana has had problems with Zimbabwean illegal immigrants and cattle crossing the border to spread contagious cattle disease. The arrival of some 60,000 Zimbabweans has also stirred resentment and fuelled claims that many are criminals, prostitutes and parasites.
Authorities in the capital, Gaborone, said it was the biggest immigration problem since independence from Britain in 1966 and that 2,500 people were being repatriated each month. In 2002 alone, Botswana repatriated 26,717 illegal Zimbabwe and says it needs
over P1.7 million or US$314 000 per month to cover the repatriatees and salaries and allowances for immigration officers.
It's not good news for regional states struggling with their own problems, said Eddie Cross, a member of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Changes executive committee who lives in Bulawayo, the capital of southern Zimbabwe.
Cross said up to half the refugees have AIDS or are HIV-positive and most are poor, starving and desperate. "They take with them a sense of frustration and despair, and a desperate need to send home something each month to their families in Zimbabwe so that those at home can survive.
Botswana officials complain that their prisons are overflowing with border jumpers, and that the government morgue in Francistown, on the frontier with Zimbabwe, is filled with the unclaimed bodies of refugees, many of who probably died from AIDS.
The new fence will help slow the influx, even though Botswana insists it is only to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease, which is rife in Zimbabwe, to its own herds of cattle.
"The fence is not for stopping people - it is to control the movement of cattle. For people, we have designated points of entry, Clifford Maribe, the foreign affairs spokesperson told NewsfromAfrica.
Botswana has been the fiercest African critic of Mugabe, and the erection of the fence has brought the diplomatic relationship between the two countries to an all-time low. But not all the cross-border traffic is unwelcome.
Meanwhile, Zimbabweans who want to get away and find a new life across the border have to brave the electric fence to the east and the crocodiles to the south.