Now the number of these refugees has reached 10,563 in the country, with 8,982 of them staying at Tongogara Refugee Camp outside Chipinge, a small town located about 500km south-east of the capital, Harare.
Closed in May 1995 to the Mozambican refugee programme, Tongogara was re-opened three years later to be used by refugees from Africa and parts of Europe and Asia.
The biggest number is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 6,713, and there are 842 Mozambicans. There are also those from Burundi (630), Rwanda (564), Somalia (12), Ivory Coast (14), Mali (45), Ethiopia (38), Eritrea (9), Sudan (4), Syria (2), Kenya (8) and South Africa (7).
They feel that even though the economy is not performing well, life is better in “peaceful” Zimbabwe than their war-torn, drought-stricken or unstable countries, where they are at risk of persecution.
Public services, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Prisca Mupfumira says there are a number of programmes at the camp so the refugees can learn self-sustenance skills and how to run small enterprises.
There, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) helps with funding and monitoring programmes, the World Food Programme (WFP) with food and money provision, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) helps with health, hygiene and sanitation.
Other entities that assist include; TDI Italy which deals with food distribution, health and education, Goal Zimbabwe with a focus on agriculture livelihoods, water and hygiene, Jesuit Refugee Service and Chipinge Horticulture.
There is also a primary and secondary school at the camp.
Even with the help they get from these organisations, the refugees still encounter a number of challenges.
Mupfumira recently told journalists during a tour of the camp that there was a challenge of accommodation, particularly for those whose mud huts collapsed.
“More than 150 huts fell down because of the rains. Only mud is used for constructing the huts. Roofing materials is supplied by UNHCR. We need cement to build strong walls,” noted the minister.
Zimbabwe has been affected by ongoing heavy rains, which caused flooding in some areas. Roads and bridges have not been sparred.
UNHCR has donated 177 new tents for shelter, while 165 stands have been pegged and allocated Mozambican asylum seekers.
Another 211 tents accommodating about 870 individuals have also been distributed.
Mupfumira said another challenge was that when Save River, one of the main tributaries of the Limpopo River, floods and the refugees have to be moved to higher grounds.
The camp is only about 100 metres away from Gonarezhou National Park, which means wild animals pose a danger to refugees.
“The fence has been destroyed and so lions and elephants move into the refugee camp. The animals are a threat (to the refugees),” Mupfumira said.
The minister said refugees often ask authorities why they choose to locate the camp near the game park and near the Save River, where wild animals come to drink water.
However, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority said it always has its staff in the area. The staff monitor animal movements in the area and deal with any impending danger they may recognise.
Mupfumira said the refugees were getting US$13 per month from World Food Programme (WFP). She said the refugees complain that “it’s not enough”.
She said another huge challenge was that of Rwandans, who left their native country before 1998, and were expected to return home since there was peace now there.
“There is now peace in Rwanda, but they are reluctant to go home, so they always ask for other durable solutions instead of voluntary repatriation,” the minister said.
There is also a problem of alcohol abuse exacerbated by the “banana beer”, a potent illicit drink secretly brewed in the border town.
Authorities are also concerned about the safety of Mozambican refugees whom they fear could be attacked by the militant Renamo.
The ruling Frelimo and Renamo in Mozambique often engage in heavy exchange of gunfire, which results in the displacement of people in areas where confrontations take place.
Tongogara Refugee Camp administrator, Misheck Zengeya, says “political squabbles and military hostilities” in neighbouring Mozambique resulted in the influx of Mozambican asylum seekers.
“This has led Zimbabwe to once again provide sanctuary to Mozambican asylum seekers,” he said.
Usually, security and refugee status determination at the camp is handled by the President’s Office, the foreign affairs ministry, the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the immigration department as well as the defence ministry.
UNHCR officer in charge at Tongogara, Esther Kirimi, said their office was being asked to “do more with less resources and yet the needs remain the same or more”.
An official at the camp, who preferred anonymity, said funding largely came from the US. However, the US has cut donor support by 7% this year, while next year it is expected the cut would reach 50%, following President Donald Trump’s proposed foreign aid cuts to Africa.
Despite the challenges faced, there have been humanitarian interventions, with the government donating 90 tonnes of maize and 60t of rice.
WFP has donated 18t of maize, 3t of cow peas and 1,28t of cooking oil.
Unicef donated 4,800kg of soap, 660 buckets and 640 jerry cans, while UNHCR distributed clothes to 622 people.On the health side, the health and child care ministry provided 1,000 mosquito nets and distributed 356 of them to Mozambican asylum seekers. The ministry also conducted indoor residual spraying for the entire refugee camp. African News Agency