South African Methodist bishop calls for respect for Zimbabwean refugees

By Ecumenical News International
May 20, 2009

A Methodist bishop in South Africa, who runs a shelter for people fleeing from his country's northern neighbour, wants police here to stop arresting Zimbabweans now that the law concerning their visas has been changed - writes Munyaradzi Makoni.

South Africa's Home Affairs ministry announced on 4 May 2009 that it had suspended visa requirements for all Zimbabweans who intend to travel to South Africa.

Bishop Paul Verryn of the Central African Methodist Church in Johannesburg said clear instructions must be communicated to the police in South Africa so that they stop arresting Zimbabweans without valid identity documents.

"If this piece of legislation is truly legitimate to help immigrants, it is absolutely critical that the police must stop harassing these people, especially Zimbabweans, without documents," Verryn told Ecumenical News International. "The police must be educated about the new development."

Nine days before the new President, Jacob Zuma, shifted Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to the ministry of correctional services, the minister announced that Zimbabweans would be granted 90-day visitors' permits.

The minister said the new arrangement would serve to strengthen efforts to fight human trafficking, human smuggling and other cross-border crimes between South Africa and its neighbour Zimbabwe.

Home Affairs spokesperson Joseph Mohajane said that the decision was made to allow temporary economic relief to long suffering Zimbabweans, of whom at least three million are believed to have fled to South Africa.

Other countries in the Southern Africa Development Community region, which also includes Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mauritius, have arrangements with South Africa that permit their citizens to visit without visas.

The South African Home Affairs department reported that it has 8000 Zimbabweans daily applying for asylum status in South Africa.

Bishop Verryn has in the past received death threats for housing Zimbabweans at the Methodist church premises in central Johannesburg. He said there was no point in allowing Zimbabweans into the country if they could not work and study as they wished.

The visa waiver agreement does not allow Zimbabweans to work, but they are allowed to apply for a permit to engage in casual labour.

The communications officer of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops' Conference, the Rev Chris Townsend, said, "We are cautiously pleased with this move and hope that the decision will now allow Zimbabweans to be more secure in South Africa. Many are victims of intimidation because of their lack of papers."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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