Asylum Seekers Flood The Cholera Border

CBS News photographer Adil Bradlow, an award-winning videographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa, is currently working along the country's northern border with Zimbabwe.

The city of Musina, less than 10 miles from the border, has seen a dizzying flow of refugees in recent weeks from Zimbabwe. Thousands have fled their country in desperation as President Robert Mugabe insists a cholera epidemic that has struck at least 16,400 people is now completely under control.

Most health officials and diplomats in the region say — some of them on the record now — that Mugabe is delusional... or just a really bad liar. "I don't know what world he's living in," Britain's Africa minister said bluntly.

A statement from the opposition political party that is supposed to be sharing power with Mugabe now (it's not, due to disagreements over key cabinet posts) says the 84-year-old leader is in "denial mode".

"The underlying cause of cholera is the lack of running water in people's homes and the collapsed sewer system across all areas of the country," reads the statement from the Movement for Democratic Change, received by CBS News reporter Sarah Carter. "As long as these fundamentals are not addressed, it would be disingenuous for anyone, let alone a leader, to say the situation is under control."

It should be said that a local cholera clinic set up in Musina by the South African government is now caring for only about 10 patients, and doctors and nurses there tell Bradlow, "they have contained the outbreak and that the situation is now under control — this despite the South African government proclaiming the border region a disaster area."

The U.K. is putting increasing pressure on South Africa's government to use their unique leverage on Mugabe, something leaders in Pretoria have done only very cautiously thus far.

And now, according to a note Bradlow sent me from the field this morning, the effort to deal with the multitudes of refugees at Musina may be posing South Africa's leaders more of a challenge than they bargained for. Here's what he said:

(AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
"By far the most serious situation is at the show ground in Musina, where about 2,000 people are waiting to be processed as asylum seekers. People are being processed by the Department of Home Affairs, at a rate of about 250 per day, in a mobile processing unit that catalogs, fingerprints and photographs all applicants.

It appears that Zimbabweans are not the only ones applying here for political asylum, among the crowd were a handful of Somalis, Zambians and even Bangladeshis – word having got out that Musina is THE place in South Africa to have your asylum application processed quickly. I was told by some Home Affairs workers who spoke to us on condition of anonymity that illegal immigrants are coming from as far as Cape Town to be processed — not just from across the river in Zimbabwe."

Bradlow is headed now for the "epicenter of the outbreak," and he expects to file an update on what he's seeing. We hope to bring you some of his video work from the border early next week. Stay tuned.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.