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'Nothing more can be done' for illegal migrants

Jason Moyo

On the eve of the deadline for Zimbabweans illegally living in South Africa, Zimbabwe says there's little more it can do to help undocumented citizens

On the eve of the deadline for Zimbabweans illegally living in South Africa, Zimbabwe says there is little more it can do to help undocumented citizens.

Within Zimbabwe, the possible political and economic impact of the mass deportation of mainly unskilled people was being calculated.

Registrar general Tobaiwa Mudede, whose department issues passports, said his office had done all it could to assist those now facing deportation.

“There is nothing we can do about those who are facing deportations because we gave them a chance to apply for passports but they decided not to.

“Our team was in South Africa for a very long time and my understanding is that those who regularised their stay are not going to be affected,” Mudede said.

Budget cuts announced by Zimbabwean Finance Minister Tendai Biti this week may mean even less money for the passport office, which is regularly swamped by applications for passports and birth certificates.

Mudede said the team he sent to South Africa to document Zimbabweans early this year had received nearly 80 000 passport applications by April and about 60 000 had been processed by the end of June.

To obtain South African permits, a valid Zimbabwean passport is needed.

Gabriel Shumba of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum said recently that, although the South African home affairs office was handling the process well, Zimbabwe could not keep up with the demand for passports.

“The concern only emanates from the fact that Zimbabwe was unable to produce the needed passports on time,” Shumba said.

Getting a passport in Zimbabwe is notoriously hard, often involving waiting overnight in long queues, or bribing touts who work with officials to help applicants to beat the queues.

The backlog of passport applications rose as high as 300 000 at one point but officials say it has now been cleared.

The cheapest passport costs $50 but it can take up to three months before it is issued. To get one more quickly, applicants have to pay up to $350.

Zimbabwean government officials have described activists’ warnings of mass deportations as “scaremongering” and don’t believe it will happen, even after the July 31 deadline for illegal Zimbabwean migrants.

But this has not reassured some analysts, who are speculating about the possible consequences of large-scale deportations. They do not think there will be an immediate political impact but say that government officials have privately expressed fears about possible unrest.

But the economic impact will be keenly felt. “Many of those not staying legally in South Africa will be unskilled or semi-skilled. It means a heavy burden on the [Zimbabwean] economy. It threatens the recovery we have been seeing over the past two years,” said economist Ben Ndebele.

Increasing numbers of exiled skilled workers, escaping the recession in Western economies and attracted by news of recovery at home, want to return to Zimbabwe.

This week a Gallup poll showed that Zimbabweans were the “most likely” in Southern Africa to say they were finding it easier to get by now than in the recent past and 18% of those surveyed this year reported “living comfortably” on their present household incomes, double the 9% who said so in 2009.

There were 16% who said they were “finding it very difficult” to get by, but this was down significantly from 31% in 2009, the survey showed.

This year 39% of Zimbabweans said they did not have enough money at times in the past year to buy food they or their families needed, down from 73% in 2009 and 80% in 2008, Gallup said.

But, especially for unskilled Zimbabweans in South Africa, these findings will count for little, economists said. Many have stayed in South Africa for decades, getting driver’s licences, bank loans, properties and education certificates on fake identities. Zimbabwean exile groups said they have been assured by South African officials that people who get authentic documents will be allowed to keep them.

There are no official figures for the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa, but the International Organisation for Migration estimates that it is between 1.5-million and two million.

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