Clouds of flies swarm the courtyard where some 75 exhausted Zimbabweans sit quietly, munching on loaves of bread and staring through the metal enclosure of their temporary South African home.

A police officer jots down the names of new arrivals and escorts them into a tin-roofed barrack lined with barbed wire, meager protection from the strong afternoon sun.

They are going back, the officer, who would not give his name, said at this detention centre on the Soutpansberg military base in Musina, 12 km from the Beitbridge border crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

These would-be-migrants are the unlucky ones among a growing tide of refugees escaping an economic crisis that has devastated Zimbabwe and threatens to engulf other nations in the region, principally South Africa.

Up to 4,000 Zimbabweans are jumping the border each day, according to farmers and other local residents working with South Africa's military and police to enforce the porous frontier between the two countries.

They say the refugee crisis has worsened in the past month since Zimbabwe's government began enforcing a radical price rollback scheme intended to stem soaring inflation -- unofficially estimated at 4,500 percent.

The measures have prompted stores to stop stocking milk, bread and other basic consumer items, pushing the economy toward collapse and forcing many Zimbabweans to cross into South Africa to buy food and petrol or look for work.

Those caught doing so illegally spend a brief spell in a detention centre, where they are fed and receive basic medical treatment, before being returned home. For many it is a minor setback, a prelude to the next attempt.

About half tell us they will try to cross again, said Andrew Gethi, operations officer with the International Organisation for Migration, an aid group that runs a relief shelter for deportees on the Zimbabwean side of Beitbridge.


Mike Magadzire lurks in the no-man's land straddling much of South Africa's border with Zimbabwe, darting into the bush at the approach of a passing vehicle and returning when the coast is clear.

The 20-year-old is typical of the growing number of Zimbabweans scaling 10-foot razor wire fences and braving arrest to cross into South Africa, where a booming economy awaits.

Like most in Zimbabwe, a former British colony where unemployment has reached 80 percent, Magadzire has no job or other means of support. How does he survive?

Tea and bread once a day, he said.

He hopes to escape this hard life into South Africa where, like millions of other Zimbabweans, he has family -- in his case, a brother working in Johannesburg. Get to Jo'burg, he said, his face lighting up at the thought.

The dream, however, has become a nightmare for others who have preceded him. There are growing reports of robberies, rapes and even murders at the hands of smugglers paid to transport refugees over the border, usually under the cover of darkness.

Refugees who evade arrest often face an equally harrowing journey to Johannesburg, where many of the estimated 3 million illegal Zimbabweans living in South Africa have found work as gardeners, maids and construction workers.

Some penniless Zimbabweans have been picked up while walking the 520-km route to South Africa's largest city. They also face growing intolerance in their adopted land, where there is a tendency to blame the newcomers for a recent spike in crime.

They steal everything in their path, said a South African farmer in Musina who asked not to be identified.

Pressure is building on South Africa's government to respond more effectively to the crisis. The country's main opposition party has proposed setting up camps to accommodate the refugees, an idea rejected by immigration officials.

A suggestion to turn on an electric fence that runs along the border -- it is currently switched off -- has been dismissed as inhumane and not in line with South Africa's liberal policies regarding asylum.

Some officials are hoping the crisis can be defused by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is trying to broker a political agreement between Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's government and Zimbabwe's biggest opposition party.

Leaders of other southern African nations asked Mbeki to mediate in March after Zimbabwe police beat dozens of government opponents in a crackdown that drew sharp criticism from the international community and renewed calls for an end to Mugabe's 27-year rule.