How South Africa became the world's No. 1 asylum destination.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 27 2010 12:55 PM

Back From the Dead

How South Africa became the world's No. 1 asylum destination.

Refugees. Click image to expand.
Zimbabwean refugees sleep inside the Central Methodist Church

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Givemore Gift Nhidza is not dead.

Over the last year, several newspapers have reported that Nhidza, a political activist in Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, is dead. But he is alive, and like 3 million other Zimbabweans, he is living in South Africa until the day he can return home without fear of being killed or going hungry.

South Africa's refugee population is massive. In 2009, the country received more than 222,000 new asylum requests, according to UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, making it the No. 1 asylum destination in the world, ahead of the United States, Sweden, France, and Germany. Africans go to South Africa to escape violence and poverty because it is a beacon of stability and economic growth on the continent. They arrive by bus after journeys that last weeks from countries such as Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, and Tanzania. When they get close to the border, those without legal papers walk through the bush and swim across rivers to avoid being sent back.

The vast majority of South Africa's refugees come from Zimbabwe. Approximately one-quarter of that country's population has gone to South Africa in recent years to escape political and economic devastation under the autocratic rule of President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. The situation has hardly eased in the last two years, despite the creation of a unity government with the MDC. According to the United Nations, 3.3 million people in Zimbabwe are at risk of hunger, and the country frequently tops lists of the world's most failed states.

To see this crisis firsthand, you only need to visit the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, where, on any given night, you will find as many as 2,000 homeless Zimbabweans. Young orphans, HIV-positive mothers, and former members of parliament sleep head to foot on the church's floors and staircases. New arrivals show up at the makeshift refugee camp on a daily basis. Médecins Sans Frontières, a humanitarian organization that prides itself on working in the most desperate conditions around the world, runs a clinic next to the church to provide them with medical treatment. Paul Verryn, the 58-year-old bishop who runs Central Methodist, says the refugees started coming in 2002, and perhaps as many as 40,000 have come through the doors since then, staying anywhere from a few nights to months. "Joburg became a magnet for people who were running for their lives," he says. "Their expectation was that they were coming to safety." The reality is entirely different.

The South African government has repeatedly taken a "quiet diplomacy" posture toward Mugabe, and it has labeled Zimbabweans undocumented "economic migrants" and therefore illegal in South Africa and subject to deportation. The refugee crisis, says Human Rights Watch, is really a failure of South Africa's foreign policy to acknowledge the political crisis across its border. Furthermore, refugees are resented by South Africans who believe they have come to take the few jobs that are available to them, and they are vulnerable to attacks like those that killed 60 people in 2008 and reignited after the World Cup.

The root of this violence, says Verryn—whose religious services contain a strong element of liberation theology—is poverty. South Africans are fighting with refugees over the few scraps of opportunity available to the masses. "If this country doesn't face the unacceptable disparity between the rich and the poor," he warns, "we are going to face a deluge of violence that will be difficult to measure."

When 34-year-old Nhidza arrived in South Africa, he also went to Central Methodist. "When I came here, I was totally dead," he explains. As someone who has been a political activist for the MDC in Zimbabwe since 1999, Nhidza was arrested and beaten on multiple occasions. The bottoms of his feet are covered in dozens of black scars, the result of electric shocks during these imprisonments, he says. But the worst came in June 2008, during the presidential runoff election between Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, when he was abducted by ZANU-PF militias and taken to a torture camp.

"I was [held] for about two weeks at Spiro Farm, receiving torture every day," he says. "But the three days from the 25th of June to 27th of June, it was the bad days for me. It was when I was put on the electric shocks, they just plug the electric wires on my genitals. They break my legs and my hands. They ordered me to drink 10 gargles of sewage. They ordered me to take some feces. It was part of my meal, I should eat someone's feces."

ZANU-PF made an example of Nhidza, and his torture was watched by hundreds of villagers, he says. When it was over, he was left for dead on the side of a road where his brother managed to find him and bring him to a hospital for treatment. For eight months, sympathetic doctors kept him hidden, and medical documents from this period detail Nhidza's injuries: nerve damage, severe soft-tissue wounds all over his body, and multiple fractures, including in his spine.

In 2009, still on crutches, Nhidza escaped to South Africa. Like many other Zimbabwean refugees, his legal status is precarious. Initially, he was granted a temporary asylum-seeker permit, which has since expired. His application for refugee status was rejected after he was asked to pay the equivalent of $200 by the review officer. Nhidza could not afford the bribe, and today he faces deportation back to Zimbabwe if he is caught by police.

"It is so easy to forget," says Verryn of his country's treatment of refugees like Nhidza. "It is so tempting, once you've managed to climb onto the ladder, to dispossess others who haven't got there. I think that we're suffering from incredible amnesia."

The nightly display of destitution at Central Methodist is particularly harsh when considered in light of the church's role in South Africa's apartheid history. "ANC people would come here to hold meetings during the apartheid years," explains Rachel Subila, a minister at Central Methodist. "And they would run here if there were problems outside, running to the church because the doors were always open, as they are open now." Nelson Mandela is a member of Central Methodist, and his daughter Zindzi was married there in 1993.

While Nhidza tries to avoid deportation, he finds ways to continue to be politically active, creating advocacy groups like the Zimbabwean Victims Foundation Forum and working with an HIV/AIDS group to educate refugees.

What does he think of the newspaper headlines announcing his death in Zimbabwe? "No, no, no, they have missed the point," he says. "I am still alive. … I am still going back for them."

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Maura R. O'Connor is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and a freelance foreign correspondent. She is a 2010 Phillips Foundation fellow.