South Africa will resume the deportation of undocumented Zimbabweans on 1 January 2011, ending its 17-month moratorium, the Cabinet announced on 1 September.
"After the 31st of December  all undocumented Zimbabweans will be treated like all others and their deportation will resume," said a statement issued after the Cabinet met.
In April 2009 the government placed a moratorium on deportations, introduced a 90-day visa on demand for passport holders, and was on the cusp of issuing Zimbabweans with a special permit allowing them to work and reside in South Africa for between 6 months and 3 years.
The Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (FMSP) estimates that between 1 million and 1.5 million Zimbabweans are living in South Africa.
Loren Landau, director of FMSP, told IRIN that deportation "does not stop people wanting to come across [the border from neighbouring Zimbabwe]. Look at the US-Mexico border, where billions of dollars have been spent; it has not stopped people crossing."
NGOs advocating the reform of regional migration were scheduled to meet with government next week, but since the announcement they have raised concerns to IRIN that the policy was retrogressive, increased the risks of xenophobic attacks, and would not halt the flow of undocumented Zimbabwean migrants - about 200,000 Zimbabweans were deported in the year leading up to the April 2009 moratorium.
Duncan Breen, of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CORMSA), said ahead of the meeting with government that the authorities had "concerns with border migration and border management ... and border integrity".
Braam Hanekom, of People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), told IRIN that Cabinet's statement was "a big step backwards", the vulnerability of undocumented migrants would increase, and the "country has a history of [undocumented] migrants being raped and abused, but too afraid to report it to the police for fear of being deported."
PASSOP said in a statement: "We believe that the large number of deportations and the proceeding 'witch hunt' of foreign nationals by the National Immigration Branch and South African Police were a major factor in creating the conditions that lead to the culture of xenophobia that haunts us today."
South Africa experienced wide-scale xenophobia in May 2008, when at least 60 people were killed and more than 100,000 displaced, and an undercurrent of xenophobic violence sometimes still surfaces as threats or attacks on foreigners.
The Cabinet announcement appears to have scuppered the initiative to issue Zimbabweans with special permits, which NGOs considered "in the best interests" of South Africa as well as the Zimbabwean migrants.
Tara Polzer, a senior FMSP researcher, noted in a migration policy brief in May 2009 that "the new set of policies [the special permit, the 90-day visa, a moratorium on deportations] regularizing movement between South Africa and Zimbabwe represented a positive shift towards a rational, coherent and regionally beneficial migration management approach."
Former President Thabo Mbeki's administration withdrew troops from the border in 2003 and their duties were taken over by the police, just as the effects of the Zimbabwe's political and economic crises began to gather momentum, spilling economic migrants in search of employment into the neighbouring states, with most seeking employment in South Africa.
In May 2010 South Africa re-deployed troops to the border.
Stability in Zimbabwe
"Zimbabwean nationals who are working, conducting business, or studying in South Africa will be issued with a working permit, business permit, or study permit ... provided they have valid Zimbabwean documents," the Cabinet statement said.
Most Zimbabwean migrants were unskilled and "Fewer than five percent of Zimbabweans will qualify for the new regulations, and most of them that do, already have," Landau noted.
"People are coming back and forth and remitting money. If that option in not available [because of tighter restrictions] then they will just bring the whole family [to South Africa]," he said.
Government spokesperson Themba Maseko told local media that Cabinet's decision was based on the belief that "some form of stability has returned to Zimbabwe, and therefore all Zimbabweans will now be treated like any other foreign nationals."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions