Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for Zimbabweans in South Africa

Kenichi Serino comments on South Africa’s handling of the thousands of Zimbabweans who have crossed over the border illegally in the hope of gaining refugee status.

On August 1, if everything goes according to plan, South Africa will lift a self-imposed moratorium on the deportation of Zimbabwean illegal immigrants.

This is the culmination of a winding, two-year journey by the government to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans living in South Africa.

Uncertain Figures

South Africa has a problem with Zimbabwean immigration. There have been estimates—likely exaggerated—of between three million to six million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, even though the population of Zimbabwe is only 12.5 million. While the number of immigrants is not as enormous as some are fond of claiming,  it is still quite considerable.

According to the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), an estimated one million to 1.5 million Zimbabweans are living in South Africa at any given time. However, this number should not be taken to mean they are all living permanently in the country. While there are some that do, many come for short-term studies, or to earn a bit of money before returning to Zimbabwe. In addition, there are those who spend a few days in South Africa buying goods to be resold back home.

If all this seems a little vague, there are reasons for it: few empirical studies have been done on the scale of immigration, but more importantly, the South African government has been overwhelmed in processing the waves of migrants.

Rejected – And Yet Streaming In

There are many bureaucratic challenges in the way South Africa handles asylum seekers. The country does not recognize Zimbabwe as having been in a political crisis but rather an economic one. Like most countries, South Africa does not accept economic refugees for asylum purposes. This places an onerous burden on those claiming political asylum, not all of whom are from Zimbabwe. According to government data provided by the ACMS, there were 223,324 applications for asylum in 2009 of which only 4,567 were approved and 46,055 rejected. But of the vast majority of cases, 172,702 were not processed at all and were simply added to the growing backlog of asylum applications.

Still, they come. Because many unskilled and undocumented Zimbabweans have little hope of getting a job or study visa, they have seen asylum seeking as the only means to live and work in South Africa. The backlog could give them the opportunity to live in the country for several months while the process drags out, perhaps earning a bit of money to survive or trying to find even a nest egg to take home before facing deportation.

This situation worsened considerably in 2008, when the largest recent arrivals of migrants occurred in the aftermath of the violence of the Zimbabwean presidential election run-off. This was the case until April 2009 when the Department of Home Affairs in South Africa announced the Special Dispensation, an ambitious plan to deal with Zimbabwean immigrants. Recognizing the difficulty of the situation, the DHA suspended deportations and announced a special permit for Zimbabweans already living in South Africa that would regularize their status while their home country was getting back on its feet. The Special Dispensation also allowed for Zimbabweans without passports to enter South Africa for three-month terms.

A Dubious Dispensation And A Complicated Amnesty

The plan drew plaudits from NGO’s and opinion makers in the media but also caused controversy. The Special Dispensation had apparently been announced by the DHA without consulting the rest of the cabinet. Without political cover, the DHA soon found itself scaling down its ambitions. The special permit for Zimbabweans living in South Africa was never implemented but at the same time deportations remained suspended. Many Zimbabweans without valid papers found themselves in a legal limbo: while they were not in danger of being detained by the government, they were still not legally allowed to work. Even more Zimbabweans were not able to take advantage of the three-month visa because they could not even afford the application fee for basic Zimbabwean identification documents.

In September of the following year, the government announced that it was ending the Special Dispensation and that deportations would resume. However, it quickly followed up with an announcement that it would implement a new process, an “amnesty” for Zimbabweans living in South Africa.

From September to December 31, 2010, Zimbabweans would have to apply for new papers. They would need to make an application to their local DHA office with their Zimbabwean passports and proof of them being either employed, enrolled in a school or university or owning a business. The amnesty was proposed as a way for Zimbabweans living in South Africa with illegal documents to become legal immigrants. This new initiative was met with some outcry. Many commentators believed the three-month deadline for applying for new papers was too short for most of those affected to take advantage. It also gave rise to a new problem.

Many of these Zimbabweans had lost their original passports long ago or allowed them to expire. Still many more never had real passports to begin with, as the cost of a Zimbabwean passport was prohibitive for a poor person. So while the DHA was offering them a way out, there were questions about how many would be able to take advantage of the amnesty process. The Zimbabwean government even further compounded the problem. Local consulates were not able to process the new applications for passports before the deadline. Media reports unveiled that some consulates had run out of the correct paper used in creating the passports. At least one immigration lawyer pointed out the irony of the process: after a long time spent in bureaucratic wilderness, and especially with the amnesty on offer, a Zimbabwean passport had never been more valuable.

As the amnesty program continued, there were massive queues outside some DHA offices across the country. At the Johannesburg office, Zimbabweans queued for days and slept overnight on the pavement because they did not want to lose their place in the line. Some had received wrong information about the process or none at all. At least one small riot broke out at the Johannesburg office, leaving a woman pepper-sprayed.

Governmental Strategies

The DHA dealt with the rolling problems in an ad hoc manner. After the riot outside the Johannesburg office, the DHA transferred more officials in from a more idle office. According to ACMS, the DHA had initially limited the amnesty process to Zimbabweans who had lived in South Africa before the special dispensation’s deadline – this limitation was scrapped. In the last weeks of the amnesty program, when the passport processes at Zimbabwean consulates began to slow, the DHA announced that a receipt for a passport application would suffice. But in the last few days of the deadline, even this was abandoned. Any Zimbabwean identification would be accepted.

Illusory Success?

In May of this year, the DHA claimed victory and said that over 250,000 Zimbabweans had made applications before the deadline. Meanwhile, there have been anecdotal reports that many have not received confirmation of their applications. They worry that their papers will disappear into the bureaucratic vacuum of the DHA, as has happened so many times before. In April, a court ruled that the DHA’s major refugee processing centre in the south of Johannesburg will have to close. According to the Coalition for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, the DHA has made no contingency plans for the closure. And beyond the offices of the DHA, in two of the poorest townships of South Africa, at least two Zimbabwean men were beaten to death by mobs in separate incidents in June. The men were accused of crime in both attacks, a frequent accusation leveled against foreigners. According to media reports, one of the attacks in Seshoga continued with the torching of six houses rented by Zimbabweans, causing thousands of their countrymen to flee and hide in the nearby bush.

Methodist Bishop Paul Verryn, who has used his church in downtown Johannesburg to provide shelter for thousands, has warned that the resumption of deportations will encourage xenophobic attacks against Zimbabweans and will lead to their victimization.

While the administrative process for Zimbabwean migrants may have returned to normal, their future is far from certain.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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