AT THE SOUTH AFRICA-ZIMBABWE BORDER — For those desperate souls who would sneak across this frontier, consider the obstacles: Armed bandits. A river, low this time of year but still populated by crocodiles and man-mauling hippos. Multiple rows of fences watched by zealous border guards. And all along the goal is to enter a country that's dangerously hostile to immigrants.
Yet to escape President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, the risks increasingly appear to be worth taking.
One of the largest illegal migrations in the world continues to swell as Zimbabweans stream into South Africa, fleeing a brutal crackdown by Mugabe in the run-up to last month's presidential election. Zimbabwe's main opposition party says that security forces and government militias have killed more than 100 of its members and abused or tortured thousands of others.
Three weeks after the election, which Mugabe won by default when his opponent withdrew because of the violence, hundreds of political activists remain in jail. Mugabe's militias haven't been disarmed.
A decade-long economic collapse already had emptied Zimbabwe of nearly a third of its people, but human rights groups say that the election attacks accelerated the flight into South Africa. Every week, soldiers and police arrest dozens, sometimes hundreds, of illegal migrants near the main border crossing outside the town of Musina. Authorities say that many more sneak across undetected.
The influx is putting more pressure on South Africa, the continent's most prosperous nation but one that views its estimated 5 million African immigrants — who form more than one-tenth of the population — with a volatile mixture of fear and resentment. In May, more than 60 were killed in an eruption of anti-immigrant violence across the country.
Most of the immigrants — some say as many as 3 million — come from Zimbabwe, the vast majority of them undocumented. In recent weeks, thousands have arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa's economic capital. Hungry and destitute, they're passing the coldest nights of the year in public parks, in the hallways of apartments in immigrant enclaves, on street corners and in churches.
"I'm very alarmed at the increase," said Paul Verryn, bishop of the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, which has sheltered refugees for two decades. These days more than 2,000 Zimbabweans — teachers, doctors, laborers, students, mothers and their infant children — fill every room in the church, spilling into the stairwells and onto the pavement outside.
"The church has never received as many people as we are on a daily basis," Verryn said.
Among them is 29-year-old Tendai Mundoza, who jumped the border with her family last month after government militias badly beat her husband, an opposition supporter, outside their home in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. Her teenage brother was abducted before the election and hasn't been heard from.
To make the crossing, the family scrounged together 5,000 South African rand, about $650. After surrendering half of it to Zimbabwean bandits who patrol the border, crossing a dry patch over the Limpopo River and spending the rest of the money to bribe their way past South African police, Mundoza now sleeps alongside her two young children in a room crowded with more than 50 others.
"It's very difficult here," she said as her 10-month-old dozed on the thin cotton blanket that serves as the family bed. "It's too congested. The children become sick. But we can't go back home."
The destination for most illegal crossings is Musina, which has the gritty feel of border towns in the American Southwest. White police vans roam the streets after dark while young migrants huddle under the dim lights of bus stops, waiting for rides south.
One recent night, along the busy Johannesburg highway, a half-dozen disheveled young men emerged from the bushes behind a truck stop. Wordlessly, they filled four 2-liter soda bottles with water from a hose next to a gas pump and gulped the water like camels. Then they trudged off to the side of the highway, where one of them pointed his right forefinger into the dark sky, the signal for a lift to Johannesburg.
The disparities between one side of this border and the other are stark.
South Africa, with its modern cities and industrial economy, is the powerhouse of Africa, while Zimbabwe's economy has been shrinking faster than any other in the world.
Under Mugabe, the only president that independent Zimbabwe has known, 2 million percent inflation has pushed the prices of basic goods such as soap, salt, cooking oil and flour to stratospheric levels. Eight in 10 people don't have jobs, and with hospitals shuttered and diseases such as tuberculosis ravaging the population, life expectancy has fallen to 36 years.
The misery reached new depths after Mugabe lost a first-round election in March to Morgan Tsvangirai, a populist former labor leader. Soldiers, police officers and pro-government militias fanned out across the country, beating and mutilating so many opposition supporters that Tsvangirai pulled out of the runoff vote in hopes of easing the bloodshed.
Many Zimbabweans arrive in South Africa paralyzed with fear.
Jacqueline Tlapi, who handles asylum cases for the nonprofit South Africa Women's Institute for Migration Affairs, described the case of a preschool teacher who, as an art project, had her class make handprints in paint.
The open palm with five fingers raised, however, happens to be a symbol of Tsvangirai's party. When some parents saw their children's handprints, Tlapi said, they notified local ruling-party officials. Soon afterward, government militiamen came to the teacher's home and threatened to kill her.
"It is a traumatized nation," said Malose Langa, a Johannesburg psychologist who's counseled hundreds of Zimbabwean torture victims.
South Africa's official response to the catastrophe on its doorstep has been the political equivalent of a raised eyebrow. President Thabo Mbeki has been widely criticized for downplaying the violence and, as the designated mediator between the parties, being too soft on Mugabe.
Mbeki's government continues to treat Zimbabwean refugees like migrants from any other country, forcing them to wade through an asylum system that's universally regarded as dysfunctional.
The Department of Home Affairs, the government immigration agency, is severely understaffed and beset by corruption. Every day, refugees from across Africa line up by the hundreds outside reception centers in Johannesburg and other cities, waiting for hours and often sleeping overnight just to get in the door.
Many Zimbabweans say that their requests for asylum are rejected arbitrarily.
The department "has perpetuated another kind of violence against already vulnerable people," said Verryn, the Methodist bishop.
While more than 44,000 Zimbabweans claimed asylum from 2005 to 2007, only 241 were recognized as refugees from 2004 to 2006, according to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
As a result, most Zimbabweans remain undocumented, at risk of arrest or deportation at any time.
"It's completely unacceptable from a humanitarian and legal perspective," said Jonathan Whittall, a program officer with the aid agency Doctors Without Borders. "These people must have access to asylum."
To get his asylum papers, Roy Majengwa, a 40-year-old carpenter from Harare, went to the immigrant reception center in the grimy suburb of Crown Mines at 10 p.m. the night after he reached Johannesburg.
Wearing every item of clothing he'd brought from Zimbabwe, Majengwa spent the night on the street outside the center. It was after noon the next day when he emerged from the gated brick building with a stamped paper granting him six months' temporary asylum.
"Now I can concentrate on finding work," he said. "If I work for one week, I can send a packet of rice back to my family. Or fish oil or salt. At least the children will be able to eat."