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Passport Panic for Zimbabwean Migrants in South Africa

Under new South African government regulations, Zimbabweans living in Africa’s strongest economy must apply for new four-year residence permits by December 31. Those the authorities find to be working, studying or owning businesses in South Africa – and the few with refugee status – will be allowed to stay. The rest could be deported, says Jackie McKay, South Africa’s immigration chief.

Zimbabweans have been streaming into South Africa for the past decade because of political violence and poverty in their homeland. The International Organization for Migration says there are up to two million living illegally in South Africa.

Migrants without valid Zimbabwean passports are barred from applying for the new residence documents. Monitors of South Africa’s revised immigration policy say this requirement puts many Zimbabweans currently living in South Africa in grave danger of being deported beginning early next year. They question the Zimbabwean authorities’ ability to deliver all the travel documents needed by immigrants before the year-end deadline for permit applications.

South African and Zimbabwean government officials say the “vast majority” of Zimbabweans in South Africa already have passports. But observers – such as human rights activists, immigration analysts and groups representing migrants – say exactly the opposite.

“The 31st December deadline is unrealistic. The major problem with that deadline is that there are thousands of Zimbabweans who do not have passports,” says Gabriel Shumba, a lawyer and director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.

Tara Polzer, from Wits University’s Forced Migration Studies Program, agrees with Shumba, commenting, “That is one of the biggest hurdles for this whole process. It’s actually quite concerning if the institutions involved are going into it without recognizing that as a real hurdle.”

Braam Hanekom, who manages an NGO that advocates for immigrant rights, says, “Only about ten percent of Zimbabweans here have passports. Those that have them tend to be among the more privileged of the immigrants – those from the urban areas and those who have access to [money] to afford the passports.”

But McKay insists that “most” Zimbabweans in South Africa do indeed have passports – despite the fact that hordes of Zimbabweans from all over South Africa have been besieging their consulate in central Johannesburg for more than a month, desperate for the travel documents. Queues have been so long and service so slow, that passport seekers have been sleeping on pavements below the building for days on end.

As a reason for McKay’s view that most Zimbabweans in South Africa have passports, Polzer says the South African government appears to be relying “solely” on information it’s been given by its Zimbabwean counterpart.

“The Zimbabwean authorities obviously have an interest in making everything appear as smooth as possible. But I think there’s plenty of evidence that South Africa’s Home Affairs Department can draw on to show that the vast majority of Zimbabweans in South Africa definitely do not hold passports,” she says.

But Zimbabwe’s consul general in South Africa, Chris Mapanga, describes such statements as “malicious.” He asks, “If the Zimbabwe government cannot deliver passports, where do all these people with passports get them? All those people who are now applying for these new permits at (South African) Home Affairs offices, where did they get their passports if the Zimbabwe government cannot deliver passports?”

But Elinor Sisulu, a Zimbabwean academic of international renown who once worked for her country’s government, responds that Zimbabwe’s passport application process is “dysfunctional at best. Even in Harare, there’s administrative chaos.… There are huge problems in getting passports in Zimbabwe. It’s very, very difficult to get a Zimbabwean passport.”

Mapanga scoffs at her comments, saying, “Hey, these NGO people. They make things up. They lie. The fact is that Zimbabwe has a very efficient (passport) system.”

But Austin Moyo, chairman of the South African branch the Movement for Democratic Change, one of the parties in Zimbabwe’s unity government, maintains that most Zimbabweans in South Africa don’t have passports “for a very simple reason.”

“Most of them came (to South Africa) through (illegal) border jumping and they did not have any documents,” he says.

McKay responds that Moyo is “wrong.”

“Most Zimbabweans come into the country legally. The statistics and the facts from our movement control system at Beit Bridge (border post) show that. And our system shows that they have passports,” he says.

NGOs, immigration experts and groups representing Zimbabweans expressed surprised at McKay’s statements. “The whole world accepts that only a fraction of migrants are in South Africa legally. There are loads of expert international studies that show that. (McKay’s) kind of denialist (sic) stance is shocking,” says Shumba.

But the immigration chief continued, “Even at our refugee reception centers, Zimbabweans that are applying for refugee status or asylum status, most of them have indicated that they do indeed have Zimbabwean passports.”