With just weeks to go before a 27-month moratorium on deporting Zimbabweans living illegally in South Africa expires, the authorities are scrambling to complete a documentation process that will still leave hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans lacking the necessary permits to avoid arrest.
The number of Zimbabweans who have fled the political and economic crisis in their country and moved to South Africa is unknown but estimates from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) range from 1 to 1.5 million. Before the government introduced the moratorium in April 2009, the authorities were deporting Zimbabweans who had entered the country illegally at a rate of about 200,000 a year.
The special dispensation initially allowed Zimbabweans to enter and remain in the country without documents, but in September 2010, the government announced an initiative to regularize as many Zimbabweans as possible before the end of the year. They were invited to apply for four-year work, study and business permits and to surrender any fraudulent documents to the authorities without fear of prosecution.
However, the short timeframe to complete the Zimbabwe Documentation Process (ZDP), and poor communication surrounding the requirements, led to many Zimbabweans being excluded, according to the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg which monitored the process.
By the end of 2010, the Department of Home Affairs had received about 275,000 applications, but many still lacked necessary paperwork such as passports. Home Affairs eventually settled on a deadline of 31 July 2011 to allow Zimbabwean authorities time to issue documents.
At a media briefing on 30 June, ZDP head Jacob Mamabolo said Home Affairs had adjudicated 263,000 of the applications and issued 133,000 permits. He added that text messages were being sent to applicants asking them to submit fingerprints and outstanding documents.
"We are doing everything in our power to ensure the process is completed within our set deadlines," he told journalists.
However, Braam Hanekom of People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP) noted that many applicants had not responded to the text messages because they had still not received passports from the Zimbabwean consulate.
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"We’re worried about what will happen to those people who applied before the deadline and haven’t received passports yet," he said.
Gabriel Shumba of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum commented that Home Affairs had handled the processing of applications with efficiency and professionalism. "The concern only emanates from the fact that Zimbabwe was unable to produce the needed passports on time."
With 142,000 permits still to be issued before 31 July, civil society groups have sought assurances that no deportations will take place before the ZDP is completed.
“The Ministry [of Home Affairs] has reassured us that although the moratorium is ending, there is no intention of a mass deportation,” said Hanekom. “We feel reassured… but there does remain a concern that such a large number of people will be eligible for deportation.”
Police witch hunt?
Shumba has received a similar assurance from Home Affairs, but said members of the police force appeared to be taking a different position. "The attitude of the police is very worrying - they're now on a witch hunt of Zimbabweans."
He said he had received reports from Zimbabweans all over the country who had been arrested "for no apparent reason" and asked for bribes.
In the border town of Musina, the most popular point for Zimbabweans to enter South Africa and the front line of the government's earlier efforts to contain illegal immigration, Jacob Matakanye of the Musina Legal Advice Centre said local police and Home Affairs officials had been arresting undocumented Zimbabweans until his office, along with the provincial police department, intervened two weeks ago.
After 31 July, he said, "we're expecting the worst... they're going to arrest a lot of people and deport them, but they'll come back in numbers."
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With few resources, Matakanye's organization and other NGOs in Musina are doing their best to prepare for a return to the situation prior to the moratorium when local show grounds adjacent to the Home Affairs office became the only place in town where Zimbabwean migrants were relatively safe from arrest. The result was 5,000 people staying in one small area without adequate sanitation facilities or drinking water.
IOM has been developing contingency plans to provide humanitarian assistance to an influx of vulnerable Zimbabwean deportees through its reception centres in Beitbridge, just across the border from Musina and Plumtree, on the border with Botswana. Assistance will consist of food, health screenings, psycho-social counselling and the offer of onward transport to returnees' home towns.
Yukiko Kumashiro, a programme support officer with IOM in Zimbabwe, said the South African government had informed her organization that, except for those who could prove they had applied for documentation, the suspension of deportations would end on 1 August.
"The worst case scenario we’re catering for is 24,000 returnees a month," she told IRIN.
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