Das Department of Home Affairs bestreitet, dass bei Unruhen bei ihrer Stelle in Pretoria Menschen verletzt wurden, und es sogar zu Todesfällen kam.

Two migrants were allegedly killed and several injured at a refugee centre in Pretoria earlier this week during a stampede, according to witnesses.

But police and home affairs officials deny a stampede took place or that anyone was killed or hurt. Witnesses at the Marabastad centre on Monday said they saw a woman and child being trampled as people in the queue flooded towards the centre when the gates opened that morning. They claimed that the two died in the crush.

"There was no stampede and no one died," said home affairs department spokesperson Manusha Pillai, adding: "If anyone died, it's not home affairs' fault."

The Mail & Guardian was told of the stampede by Lawyers for Human Rights spokesperson Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh and the director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, Gabriel Shumba, who had heard about it from people in the queue.

There was apparently another stampede three weeks ago at the same centre, highlighting the growing desperation of refugees. Home affairs confirmed the incident in early July, saying 14 people were injured, four whom were hospitalised.

Ramjathan-Keogh said the stampede was a direct consequence of the closing of the Crown Mines centre, the only one in Johannesburg. Businesses filed a court complaint that shut Crown Mines' doors in May. Migrants normally serviced in Johannesburg must now go to Pretoria.

A Zimbabwean who did not want to be named told the M&G he saw the stampede.

"I saw a mother and child trampled," he said. "There was a big, big crowd, about 6 000. There's no procedure, it's totally orderless."

Police tried to manage the queues, Shumba said, but ultimately they scared the migrants, who thought they were trying to chase and arrest them.

At least three police were present, the Zimbabwean witness said, adding that a home affairs official came to the site in a police car and made an announcement to the crowd by megaphone.

"After the stampede, I left," he said. "Conditions there are inhumane."

Demand at centres is growing as migrants try to obtain refugee status before the close of the Zimbabwe Documentation Project, a special-permit initiative expected to end in one to two months' time.

Some fear that mass deportations will follow the deadline. For most Zimbabweans, refugee status represents the last chance of acquiring legal status, according to Braam Hanekom, director of People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (Passop).

Gauteng police spokesperson Colonel Lungelo Dlamini said he knew nothing about the stampede, which did not concern the police because "a stampede is not a crime".

The Zimbabwean who witnessed the incident was waiting to renew his refugee status, which he has to do every six months to avoid deportation or a fine of R1 000 for a late renewal.

He said there were about 35 queues outside the offices, with women, men and mothers with child­ren separating themselves into different lines.

A Passop report in May on Cape Town's refugee centre said that in a period of two weeks more than 1 600 people were turned away. The reasons included a lack of supplies at the centre, employees not turning up for work, applicants without visas and queues being too long.

There was also a shortage of toilets. The Pretoria centre had six filthy portable toilets inside its gates, too few for 6 000 people, according to the Zimbabwean. In addition, there was no drinking water, no shade and no comfortable places to sleep.

"No one has time to travel to get food," he said. "You don't come there for food , you want your freedom."

Shumba said it was critical to open another centre and that priority in queues should be given to the disabled and women with children.

Other refugee centres, such as those in Cape Town and Durban, could also be closed because of complaints from neighbouring businesses.

But homes affairs deputy director general Jackson McKay said no other centres would be opened and the department would close existing centres if the courts ordered it to.

An amendment to the Immigration Act is currently before Parliament which will provide for jail sentences of up to four years for undocumented migrants and those caught aiding or employing them.