Returning Zimbabweans At Risk in South Africa

doctorZimbabweans crossing illegally into neighboring South Africa after holidays at home are being raped and robbed by gangs on both sides of the border, a medical aid group said Thursday.

Medecins Sans Frontieres officials said hundreds of Zimbabweans who work in South Africa have been coming back across the border daily over the past week after spending Christmas and New Year’s in Zimbabwe.

MSF teams treated 10 rape victims in just six days at the beginning of January. Last year, the aid group said, there were about 15 rapes reported each month. Injuries suffered during robberies also were up significantly, according to the group also known as Doctors Without Borders.

Giuseppe Demola, who heads MSF operations at the main crossing at Musina, attributed the crime increase to the holiday spike in border crossings.

“There are these gangs that … are attacking almost systematically,” he said, saying both Zimbabwean and South African criminals were involved.

MSF has called on South Africa to open its borders to Zimbabweans fleeing their country’s economic collapse. Demola said in telephone interview Thursday that would mean more Zimbabweans could cross legally, and therefore safely.

Zimbabwe’s political leaders, under pressure from South Africa and other neighbors, formed a coalition government almost a year ago, pledging to tackle the country’s political and economic crises. The economy has shown some improvement, but continuing political impasse makes the future uncertain.

Late last year, the United Nations and the international Red Cross appealed for millions of dollars in foreign aid for food and medicines and to bolster health, education and sanitation in Zimbabwe.

South Africa took a step last year toward acknowledging the futility of trying to stop the influx, saying Zimbabweans could travel on a free 90-day visitor’s permit and apply to do casual work during their stay. But travelers still need passports, which many Zimbabweans lack either because they are too expensive or because their crippled government has been slow to issue them.