The South African government has announced it will not deport Zimbabwean migrants who can show they have applied to work legally in the country. But it says it will not extend the deadline for applying for the permits, causing concern among civic groups that work with the migrants.
Activists working with Zimbabwean migrants have welcomed South Africa's announcement that it would not begin deporting undocumented Zimbabweans until it has finished a three month-old registration process.
But Home Affairs Minister Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma reiterated that the migrants still must apply by December 31 . "We will not extend the deadline. That is why we are saying, bring in your form. Even if you do not have fingerprints, bring it in. Even if you do not have a passport, bring it in. So that we know you are here. And then we we will extend the process in time," he said.
The government in September announced it was ending an 18-month moratorium on deportations of undocumented Zimbabweans. At the same time it launched a program to give legal status to those who could prove they were working or studying here.
There are an estimated 1.5-million Zimbabweans in South Africa. Officials say they have received about 100,000 applications and of these 40,000 still remained to be processed.
Civic groups while welcoming the announcement said the registration process had been slow and confusing to some migrants.
Some applicants stand in line for days before being able to apply. Others have been unable to obtain necessary passports or birth certificates from the Zimbabwean embassy.
Activists say many Zimbabwean workers in remote rural areas either do not know about the process or cannot afford to travel to the cities where the program is being conducted.
Attorney Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh of Johannesburg's Lawyers for Human Rights said it is not likely that all eligible Zimbabweans would be processed in time. "The process has been a failure and the only way to remedy the situation is if the deadline is extended to allow more Zimbabweans access to the process and to be able to regularize their situation," Ramjathan-Keogh said.
Dlamini-Zuma said a meeting Tuesday with the activists had raised legitimate concerns and led to the decision to postpone any expulsions. "That is why we are saying there'll be no deportation until we have finished processing everything that we would have received including waiting for those people who are waiting for their passports," he said.
Many of the Zimbabwean migrants apply for political asylum citing political oppression and human rights abuses in their country.
The South African government says 90 percent of these people are actually economic migrants looking for jobs because of Zimbabwe's economic crisis.
The government says the economic and political climate in Zimbabwe has improved since the installation of a unity government nearly two years ago.
But Ramjathan Keogh says the power sharing agreement between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is shaky and notes that Mr. Mugabe has called for elections next year. "The situation is not improving. The national unity government, the agreement will end in February of 2011 before the elections which are scheduled in Zimbabwe. And after the end of that agreement we do not know what will happen and it is likely that we will continue to see an influx of Zimbabweans coming over the border in need of protection," Keogh said.
In addition, activists say an average of 17,000 Zimbabweans are being deported each month despite the moratorium. And they say the thousands of unemployed Zimbabweans in South Africa do not qualify for the permits. As a result, they say the crisis is likely to continue.