TEXT OF STORY
AMY SCOTT: We've been following the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy. Right now Zimbabweans are lining up at banks, desperate to exchange their currency before it becomes worthless on December 31st. Some might argue that's already happened. The inflation rate is an estimated 40,000 percent, though Zimbabwe says it can't give an official figure. There aren't enough goods left in the shops to make price comparisons. About 80 percent of the workforce is unemployed. Thousands of Zimbabweans cross into South Africa illegally to find work. And as Gretchen Wilson reports from the South African border, many children make that journey by themselves.
GRETCHEN WILSON: The sun's just coming up over this small town. Semi-trucks drive through Main Street, coming from Zimbabwe's border. And in the gray light, you can see people on street corners -- leaning over garbage cans. They're picking through the trash.
These are undocumented migrants from Zimbabwe, and they're as skittish as stray cats. As they stand up, you can see they're actually -- children. One is a boy I'll call Zack, whose shorts and filthy red T-shirt hang on his frame. He's 13.
ZACK: Oh, we're looking money for food to eat. If we not get a job. I'm looking for job, and money for school. I don't have parents. My parents, they were dead.
In Zimbabwe, poverty, hunger and AIDS have broken down family economies. Children with no other options come to South Africa on their own -- in search of day labor and handouts. In Zack's case, he could no longer afford school fees. So for three weeks he walked from his hometown in Zimbabwe, through the bush, and across the shallow Limpopo River into South Africa. He wasn't alone.
ZACK: I come with my friends.
WILSON: How old are they?
ZACK: Others, they are 9 years, 13, 14.
Every morning, Zack roams parking lots here. He quietly asks strangers if he can weed and water their gardens.
WILSON: How do you ask people for a job?
ZACK: Well, you say: I'm looking for job. Then if he say I don't have, I beg him money for food.
An estimated 1,500 children like Zack cross this border every year. Sarah Crowe is with UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. She says children come for the same reason adults do -- food and money.
SARAH CROWE: South Africa is the powerhouse of Africa. And with economic degradation in countries around the region -- such as Zimbabwe -- South Africa is a very attractive place to come.
But once they're here, they're extremely vulnerable. They dodge border officials, criminal gangs, child predators and traffickers. Girls are particularly vulnerable to rape and forced prostitution. South African officials routinely deport Zimbabwean adults - but authorities lack the capacity to deal with most of the children. So they're left to roam.
At noon, a 17-year-old I'll call Michael walks from a row of shacks and into town. His parents asked him to leave Zimbabwe a few months ago to become a breadwinner.
MICHAEL: When I come here to South Africa, I was thinking I am going to find some jobs and work for my family -- for my father. But I didn't find work.
He still hopes to become a farm worker here, making $140 a month picking oranges. Meanwhile, he worries for his family.
MICHAEL: Because I don't know what they're doing now. I don't know whether they've got food, I don't know!
The sun is going down over South Africa's main border crossing into Zimbabwe. People here are hustling -- selling food and gas to those about to cross the border. Kids are here too -- hunting for bottles. Children collect plastic bottles from the trash that lines the road. Most adults won't get across the border post without proper documentation. But when kids ask to cross, officials often look the other way.
WILSON: How do you get across the border?
BOY 1: In the bridge.
BOY 2: We say to soldier, I want to go to pick bottle.
WILSON: And the soldier lets you come across?
BOY 2: Yes.
These are the youngest migrants -- 8 and 9 years old. They're crossing international borders and exposing themselves to high risk, just to collect plastic bottles they'll sell for a penny a piece in Zimbabwe.
At the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.