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Time Running Out for Undocumented Zimbabweans in South Africa

  • Stanley Karombo

An immigration official addresses Zimbabweans as they queue in the rain outside immigration offices in downtown Johannesburg, as they attempt to become legal before what they fear will be a wave of deportations, 15 Dec 2010

An immigration official addresses Zimbabweans as they queue in the rain outside immigration offices in downtown Johannesburg, as they attempt to become legal before what they fear will be a wave of deportations, 15 Dec 2010

For the past two months, Zimbabweans living in South Africa have been lining up at government offices around the country seeking permits allowing them to work or study legally in the country.

There are an estimated 1.5 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa. With less than a month to go before the deportations are due on December 31, human rights activists are warning South African officials they may be facing a rights disaster involving undocumented Zimbabwean migrants.

A migrant activist of the Zimbabwe Exile Forum that has been working with the South African government, Timothy Muneri, says time is running out for undocumented Zimbabweans to process their permits.

"We are not sure how to prepare for it," he said, " The resumption of deportations suspended since April. How we are to handle such massive deportations is a million-dollar question."

Muneri says workers must bring a letter from their employer, and informal traders need to apply for licenses from the local authority and show receipts as proof of their work. But he notes that many people are not aware of this. He says his organization is working around the clock trying to persuade employers to issue the letters.

"The unfortunate part of it is that some of the vendors are even afraid of approaching the authorities," Muneri said. "We are however, trying our best to ensure that we can help as many as we can before the D-day."

The South African government in September set the deadline on the grounds that conditions had improved sufficiently in Zimbabwe to revoke a moratorium on expulsions. This followed the creation of a power-sharing government in Harare and reforms that stabilized the economy.

The director of the Southern African Women Institute, Joyce Dube, says the program allows some Zimbabweans to legalize their stay. But she says there is not enough time to process everyone.

"Of our concern is the plight of children, the disabled and the sick during the impending deportation," she said. "The organization will assist in the repatriation of the affected people. But there is also fear that the deportation will trigger fresh violence."

South Africa experienced a wave of xenophobic violence two years ago in which 60 people were killed and many others wounded or had their homes looted.

Dube told VOA that many informal workers will slip back across the porous borders. She is particularly concerned about the many blind people who were unable to access treatment in Zimbabwe and crossed the border in the recent years.

Many Zimbabweans have obtained fraudulent South African documents, such as passports, birth certificates and identity cards. They have been offered an amnesty against prosecution and deportation if they voluntarily hand in the documents to the South African Department of Home Affairs.

But others, such as a 35-year-old woman who only wants to be identified as "Sister Rosie", say they will not surrender these documents. Sister Rosie says she has been using her fraudulent passport for the past 10 years.

"It is better to have a bird in hand than chasing many in the bush," she said. "I will rather stick to my passport than to be issued with a four-year permit. I do not [like] the hassles of applying for the extension of the permit after four years."

The Forced Migration Studies Program at Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand estimates that determining how many of the 1.5 million Zimbabweans in South Africa might be undocumented is extremely complicated because some of them have 90-day visas at the moment or have applied for political asylum.

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