Zimbabwean Migrant Workers in a Limpopo Village: Reflections on the Treatment of Refugees on the Feast of the Epiphany

imageJanuary 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian calendar, is probably best known in today’s Western secular culture as the day when people  take down their Christmas decorations. For me yesterday was one of those particularly hectic days, so alas – our Christmas decorations are still standing.

But there are probably more important matters to be thinking about on the Feast of the Epiphany. At the danger of creating an over-spiritualized impression of myself, a document I received recently resonated with the scripture readings for the Feast of the Epiphany (Matthew 2) – where Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee to Egypt after the visit from the Magi. It brought my focus on the plight of refugees.

Fr Michael Bennett of St Patrick’s Missionary Society Kiltegan, Wicklow, is currently working in South Africa. He sent me a document he co-authored with Gertrude Chimange of the Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace in Mutare, Zimbabwe. A View from the Other Side: Zimbabwean Migrant Workers in a Limpopo Village, details the hardship faced by Zimbabweans who have made it over the border into South Africa.

Chimange and Bennett’s document highlights myriad difficulties for the refugees: most are ‘illegally’ living in South Africa, and any work that they can find is intermittent, poorly-paid ‘piece work.’ They interviewed a number of women, many of whom are widows and the only bread-winners for dependents.

They briefly profile the experiences of 14 women. Here are just two examples (names are changed to protect identities:

  • Martha, aged 28, has five children in Zimbabwe. Her husband is deceased. She came to South Africa on foot through the vast expanse of the Kruger National Park in Oct. 2008, one of about eighty Zimbabweans grouped together for safety’s sake. It took them five days to cross the Park. Their main fear was the threat of lions. She told us about Zimbabweans who had been eaten by lions in their attempt to cross the Park.
  • Chipo has one child. She was abandoned by her husband who had taken another woman. She came to South Africa in August 2007, crossing the dangerous Limpopo River near Beit Bridge in the process. (Most cross where the water is low and cut through the fencing wire on the South African side. Despite this, a number of Zimbabweans are known to have drowned in crossing. Some have been eaten by crocodiles.) She reported that at that time there was a barrier across the river at one point which acted as a mesh for trapping any material carried by the waters. This was regularly checked for bodies of dead Zimbabweans. Because the bodies lack identity they usually receive a pauper’s burial.

They then compare the lives of these women with the lives of some Zimbabwean government officials and their wives, who have amassed great wealth through a system of corrupt patronage. Chimange and Bennett call this a ‘moral crisis’ and call on those with power to change their ways:

The Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe have, on different occasions, referred to the ongoing crisis as being as much about morality as about politics or economics. They speak the truth. While there are exceptions, the general absence of a moral sense on the part of the minority who are in positions of power and privilege continues to make life very difficult for the majority, at times causing them untold suffering. Little will change until a moral sense is awakened in individuals who have access to privilege and power. There is as much need for spiritual and moral regeneration in Zimbabwe as there is for social and economic regeneration. The two ‘regenerations’ are not inimical to each other; they complement each other; they go hand in hand. We need:

  • a regard for the values and principles that respect and promote human dignity,
  • a sense of genuine compassion for those in need,
  • relative simplicity in one’s style of life,
  • moderation in all things,
  • a willingness to respectfully listen to others whose perceptions differ from one’s own

The people that Chimange and Bennett work with and write about must often feel abandoned and disempowered. Chimange and Bennett are concerned that the suffering these people endure just does not register on the consciences of those who have the political and social power to improve their plight.

They call for engagement with ‘those who misuse their power in a system of control and exploitation.’ But I fear that gaining genuine engagement and empathy from the powers-that-be may be just as difficult as turning the heart of King Herod, whose policies prompted Joseph, Mary and Jesus’ to flee to Egypt in the first place.

Even so, just remembering that Jesus himself was a refugee should give Christians some pause for thought about what can be done to alleviate the suffering of those who find themselves in that position, usually through no fault of their own. This problem is not confined to Zimbabwe and South Africa, as articles in Tuesday’s Irish Times by Bishop Raymond Field and Patsy McGarry attest.

Click here to read A View from the Other Side in full.

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