A one-stop 72-hour service for undocumented Zimbabwean migrants in an enclosed military base outside the South African town of Musina, near Zimbabwe's border, could ease tensions and problems around the issue, according to a senior UN official.
The call from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) came after the South African government's decision to close a refugee reception centre located on a site near the town used for agricultural shows.
The site has been declared off-limits to the 2,000 to 3,000 Zimbabwean migrants who would queue every day at the mobile home affairs office at the showgrounds to apply for documentation and often spend nights out in the open.
"The closure of the showgrounds demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the humanitarian and protection needs of Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa and will have extremely negative consequences, as no allowances have been made to ensure their access to shelter, food or medical assistance," said Jonathan Whittall, a spokesman for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical humanitarian NGO, which was among those criticising the closure.
The migrants camp at the showgrounds to get their hands on asylum-seeker status papers, which allows them to stay legally in South Africa as their asylum request is processed..
But there had been concern around the living conditions at the site, which had only a few water taps and sanitation, and bedding often consisted of a flattened cardboard box laid out on the dusty ground.
"It was not fit for people to stay in and it was not a camp," said Joseph Mohajane, a spokesman for the department of home affairs defending the decision to close the showgrounds to the migrants.
The UNHCR, which has been lobbying to move the refugee reception centre run by the South African Department of Home Affairs to the "SMG" military base, just outside Musina, reiterated the call on the day of the closure.
The SMG has been used to hold undocumented migrants before their deportation, and in a recent report, Monitoring Immigration Detention in South Africa, Lawyers for Human Rights condemned the conditions at the base.
However, Bruno Geddo, a senior UNHCR official in Musina, told IRIN the facilities would be expanded: "The military base is enclosed and controlled; the undocumented migrants will be brought in and can stay in shelters that we can set up in a small portion of the area."
He added: "The undocumented migrants, who will be provided with food and healthcare, will be processed within 72 hours and then UNHCR will transport them to their intended destination."
Geddo said the relocation was being discussed by local government authorities and the South African departments of home affairs and defence.
In the interim, UNHCR has negotiated board and lodging for 350 undocumented migrants at local churches in Musina. "It is a start," he said. UNHCR has also negotiated with the local police not to arrest them.
Zimbabwe's decade-long recession and political crisis has triggered an exodus of an estimated three miillion people - mostly economic migrants - looking for work and escape from the hardships.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions