About 160 Zimbabweans deported from South Africa by air this week found themselves detained at Harare International Airport facing the intense scrutiny of their country’s Central Intelligence Organization and local immigration authorities.
South African authorities removed the Zimbabweans from the Lindela repatriation camp outside Johannesburg and flew them to Harare on Tuesday.
News reports said that the deportation flight was intended to relieve overcrowding at Lindela, which drew scrutiny earlier this year after several Zimbabweans died there.
One of the deportees in Harare said she and others on the flight were searched upon their arrival and interrogated for hours by security officials who questioned them about their political affiliations and accused them of attempted economic sabotage.
Police sources said the deportees were detained for fingerprinting to determine if they are being sought by Zimbabwean police; if not, they would soon be freed. But one report said many of the deportees could be held for up to a week for processing.
An estimated 2 million Zimbabweans have headed south across the Limpopo River into South Africa seeking economic opportunity and relief from political crisis at home. Some 300,000 have been deported in the past five years, South African officials say. Very few of the 8,000 who applied have been granted political asylum.
Some observers said the deportations looked like Pretoria sending a political message to Harare. But spokesman Nkosana Sibuyi for the South African Department of Home Affairs said there was no political dimension to the high-profile expulsions, which, he said, were in line with Pretoria’s just-amended immigration legislation.
Reporter Patience Rusere of VOA’s Studio 7 for Zimbabwe asked Mr. Sibuyi what he made of the harsh reception accorded to the air deportees by Harare officials.
Spokesman Rojers Mudarikwa of the Zimbabwe Action Support Group, an advocacy organization for Zimbabweans in South Africa, told Studio 7 reporter Rusere that the Pretoria government expelled the Zimbabweans to punish critics of its policies.