Zimbabwe will this weekend evacuate more than 1,000 of its citizens from South Africa in the wake of xenophobic attacks that have displaced hundreds of foreign migrants.
Embassy officials said they had toured “ransacked” homes left behind by Zimbabwean migrants in the city of Durban. Some homes had been set alight.
At least two Zimbabweans – a woman and a toddler – are among six foreigners reported to have been killed in the violence, which broke out after president Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, made a rare state visit to South Africa last week.
Some 800 Zimbabweans have fled to a makeshift refugee camp in Chatsworth township. They are among an estimated 8,500 foreigners staying in camps and at police stations in and around Durban and Johannesburg.
Isaac Moyo, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to South Africa, said most of his country’s people living in normally peaceful Durban, a palm-fringed seaside resort which is popular with foreign tourists, had had “sleepless nights” and wanted to go home. Many are without passports and identity papers.
“We’re seized with the issue of documenting people and providing them with food and shelter,” Mr Moyo told the state-owned Chronicle newspaper.
“We’ve had assurances from the host government that the situation is now calm, but people are still sceptical because the attacks are perpetrated during the night.”
The Zimbabwe Business Network in South Africa said many displaced Zimbabweans were “sleeping in open fields and [on] pavements without any shelter or blankets”.
South Africa is home to between one and two million Zimbabweans, rights groups say. No-one knows exactly how many have made the perilous trip across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River to escape the tyranny of Mugabe’s regime and the poverty Africa’s oldest president has caused.
Worried about growing unrest, the South African government has made repeated attempts to force illegal migrants to regularise their stay or leave, introducing a Special Dispensation Permit that is only for Zimbabweans. But most prefer not to make themselves known to the authorities and continue living in South Africa illegally, often in shanty towns. South Africans accuse them of fuelling crime and taking scarce jobs.
South African police will tomorrow escort the Zimbabweans who have been given repatriation papers to the Beitbridge border post, where they will be handed over to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the Chronicle said. The IOM normally handles Zimbabweans who are being deported: in the past, many have turned round and slipped through the border again.