Chipo Ngwira, 31, left Harare three weeks ago to look for a job in Gaborone, Botswana. She has not tasted a decent meal for 14 days as Batswanas constantly remind her that they have no jobs for foreigners, commonly known in the diamond-rich nation as 'makwerekwere'.
The 100 Pula she had raised over six months in Zimbabwe's economically crippled capital, Harare, has been exhausted. The only thing now is for her to join other Zimbabwean women at Gaborone West's Mogoditshane suburb where prostitution is the order of the day.
Finding a job in Gaborone's White City area, largely frequented by Zimbabweans looking for formal employment such as gardening and housekeeping is just a pipe dream.
To Chipo, the idea of leaving her two starving children with their grandmother was the most painful decision she has ever made in her life.
"I just dumped them at my grandmother's place in Highfield density suburb in Harare and told the granny that I am leaving for a better life either in Botswana or South Africa," says the distraught single parent.
"I shed my tears before embarking on the 760 kilometre journey to Gaborone. Right now, I don't know whether my children have had a decent meal during the past three weeks because my grandmother is poor and she receives $100,000 per month from the Department of Social Welfare. This is hardly enough to buy two loaves of bread."
Chipo is not the only Zimbabwean facing such difficulties as thousands of economic refugees are flocking to Botswana and South Africa to search for basic food commodities and greener pastures as the country is facing its worst economic crisis in its history.
"This is the worst time of our lives and there is no way one can live in Zimbabwe and make ends meet unless one is a thief, money dealer, businessperson, worker of a non-governmental organisation or top civil servant. People have struggled to make ends meet since President Robert Mugabe and his cronies raided the farms in the year 2000," says Njabulo Ndlovu, an economic refugee currently looking for a job at White City suburb.
Independent sources estimate that between 500 and 600 refugees cross into Botswana and South Africa every day to look for jobs. Farmers close to the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa say that the figures are much higher, a fact that they say senior officials in the military and police will only privately admit to. According to the farmers' estimates, about 4,000 Zimbabweans are crossing into South Africa every night. That represents at least 100,000 people a month, far more than official estimates of 20,000 per month.
Just this week the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) reported that 6,000 Zimbabwean refugees were deported every week from Musina near the Beit Bridge border post. ZimbabweJournalists.com reported that Andrew Gethi, the chief operating officer of the International Organisation for Migration, which opened an office to assist deported Zimbabwean refugees on the northern side of the border, says the organisation is handling on average 17,000 deportees every month - it estimates that more than 86,000 illegal immigrants were forcibly repatriated between January and May this year alone. (It is important to note that the figure of 17,000 per month excludes those refugees who have managed to evade the South African authorities).
The scale of the problem is likely to worsen as the Zimbabwean economy deteriorates further and as Zanu PF policies become increasingly repressive and brutal. For most refugees, the dangerous crossing into neighbouring countries and the uncertain future they face there presents them with far better options of survival than staying at home.
Zimbabwe's economy is deteriorating at an alarming rate. South Africa's Econometrix Ecobulletin of 10 July reported that in June, Zimbabwe's inflation was around 3 700% and the preceding month around 2,200%. At the time of publishing, the bulletin said the official rate had reached over 4,500%. This clearly indicated that the country had reached the realms of hyperinflation as a 4 500% inflation rate entailed roughly a doubling of prices every month or an escalation of 2.33% per day. Furthermore, if daily prices accelerated to 2.8% per day, on an annualised basis this would be equivalent to 20,000% inflation.
The Econometrix Ecobulletin noted: "No country has ever endured true hyperinflation without there being a change in leadership or type of government within a fairly short space of time. Zimbabwe is unlikely to be any different."
The very recent 'price war' policies embarked upon by the Zanu PF government under Mugabe's leadership has led to an immediate upsurge in the scale of the refugee problem. The editor of South Africa's Business Day newspaper commented this week that the undeniable human flood of Zimbabwean refugees to South Africa over the recent years has suddenly become a torrent. He further commented: "There is a real threat of a socially and economically disastrous tsunami sweeping [South Africa] in the coming weeks unless there is international intervention".
Opposition parties in South Africa have called upon the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to set up refugee camps along the borders with Zimbabwe, a call that has been rejected by Jack Redden, the UNHCR's regional information officer. Redden said that the UNHCR could only be involved in the case a "total collapse" of the Zimbabwean state, at a point when Zimbabweans became 'asylum seekers' rather than 'economic refugees'.
Rapidly escalating state-sponsored violence and the fall out from Operation Murambatsvina has blurred the distinction between political and economic refugees. During the disastrous government initiated operation to demolish the houses and shacks of largely poor people in the major cities and towns, more than 700,000 people were rendered homeless or jobless, and at least 2.4 million poor people were affected. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, the special envoy of Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, said the programme breached both national and international human rights law provisions guiding evictions, thereby precipitating a humanitarian crisis. The UNHCR distinction between political and economic refugees is a moot point to most Zimbabweans; they are leaving Zimbabwe because they have no options and they need to survive. *
Among the refugees fleeing Zimbabwe, those who have already sought political asylum in Botswana during the past six months are awaiting the processing of their application papers at Dukwe Camp, a security-tight compound once occupied by Zimbabweans fleeing atrocities perpetrated by former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith's repressive regime and the Mugabe government's Gukurahundi - involving mass civilian murders - in the 1980s. It is estimated that more than 20,000 people died during the Gukurahundi massacres.
David Sediadie, an official spokesman of President Festus Mogae's Office, says indications are that the political asylum seekers arrived in the country six months ago while the new string of refugees are linked to the current price control measures enforced by Mugabe's desperate regime.
Although the Zimbabwean government is tight-lipped over refugees fleeing the country into neighbouring countries, the situation appears to be worse in Johannesburg, one of Africa's largest cities.
This has forced Bishop Paul Verryn's Central Methodist Church to take care of 900 stranded refugees, some of them with little children, who crossed the borders illegally to look for a better living.
"Conditions for refugees in a church building not meant for housing are a nightmare, but it's far sight better than living rough on the inner-city streets where life is very tough and the refugees are regularly harassed," said the Bishop.
"While peace is not in place, it's vital that people seeking asylum and refuge find a more humane welcome in the countries to which they flee. In South Africa, we have the opportunity for the Zimbabwean refugees to be granted full refugee status, almost in response to the way we were hosted and cared for during the difficult years by the Zimbabwean government of that time."
He continued: "The presence of Zimbabweans in this country presents us with a choice about our view of humanity. Firstly, refugees are by no means a nuisance or a curse in a country. They are a glorious opportunity for us to show our true humanity. Secondly, Zimbabweans come with gifts. Our wisdom is to expose and celebrate their presence among us."
An estimated three million Zimbabweans, mostly illegal immigrants, live in South Africa. The majority end up living in crime-infested areas such as Hillbrow, Berea and some parts of Johannesburg's South-Western Townships (Soweto), leading to the troubling perception among some South Africans that Zimbabweans are deeply involved in crime - a perception that many commentators see as a worrying increase in xenophobia.
"Once these economic and political refugees arrive here, look for jobs and fail to get formal employment, some are forced into crime," says a top South African policeman.
Despite concerns like these expressed in media reports, Chris Maroleng from the South African Institute of International Affairs says the statistics do not indicate a disproportionate number of Zimbabweans involved in crime.
"Individuals who were engaged in normal activities back home are less likely to get involved in criminal activities in other countries," he says. "They are just keen to make a living and send food and money home."
Maroleng does point out, however, that there have been cases of former Zimbabwean army personnel being involved in specialised crimes, such as cash in transit heists and bank robberies.
The difficulties and uncertain future facing Zimbabwean refugees in neighbouring countries, combined with the negative and sometimes hostile reception they receive from locals there, highlights the scale of the desperate conditions in Zimbabwe. The choice to leave, to cross illegally into another country either by swimming across a crocodile infested river or risking arrest by border patrols, reflects the tenacity and courage of Zimbabweans too, determined to find a way to survive despite all efforts to beat them into submission.
Zimbabwean refugees want to go home to live with their families in peace and security and are increasingly turning to talk of the need for action and the need for political change in Zimbabwe. Regional leaders would do well to listen to them, and support their call for non-violent peaceful change.
The Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa and Botswana believe that there is only one answer to their suffering - the demise of Zanu PF and Robert Mugabe's rule, a dictatorial evil leader who has been at the helm of the country for all of the 27 years since independence from British rule.
"Our lives are resting on one selfish man named Robert Gabriel Mugabe. I don't see the reason why over 12 million people can be terrorised by one man without fighting back. This is the time for us to retaliate against this monster. Enough is enough!" says Phathisani Mkandla, an economic refugee roaming the streets of Johannesburg during the past two weeks looking for formal employment.
"If all people agree to stage a strike against Mugabe, we will push him out of power within hours and our country may pull out of this mess," says Mkandla's friend Power Nketha with razor sharp cheekbones, a sign of extreme hunger.
* See reports by the Solidarity Peace Trust: "No War in Zimbabwe" and "Operation Murambatsvina - Discarding the Filth".