Refugees face corruption and long queues in a bid for permits
Desperation is mounting for undocumented Zimbabweans waiting for permits needed ahead of the July 31 deadline if they are to avoid the risk of deportation.
The end of this month could herald a future no Zimbabweans want: the forced return to their homeland. Or it could signal the legal right to live in the country upon which so many Africans pin their hopes and dreams.
The department of home affairs is adjudicating applications for work, study and business permits until the end of July as part of the last phase of the Zimbabwean Documentation Project (ZDP). Only Zimbabweans who filed applications between April 2009 and December 31 2010 are being reviewed for permits.
Apart from seeking asylum and applying for refugee status, dispensation permits represent many Zimbabweans’ only chance to live legally in the country.
A 2010 United Nations report estimates that between 1.5 and three million Zimbabwean migrants live in South Africa.
But home affairs received only 275 762 applications for permits, 6 243 of which were applications for refugee status, said Jacob Mamabolo, head of the ZDP, in a statement.
Based on those estimates, up to two million Zimbabweans could remain undocumented in South Africa at the end of the month.
By the end of June home affairs had yet to issue 142 431 permits out of roughly 264 000 approved applications, leaving thousands of Zimbabweans waiting anxiously in queues across the country to get their paperwork.
Deputy director general Jackson McKay said all 46 of the country’s home affairs offices were open to process applications.
The ZDP first planned to issue permits by June 2011.
But a backlog in the Zimbabwe government department charged with issuing passports and travel documents resulted in the deadline being extended to July.
Mamabolo said home affairs created the dispensation for three main reasons: migrants posed “major security challenges to the country”; national immigration policy requires foreigners to be documented; and international obligations require South Africa to assess claims made for asylum or temporary residence.
Grave human rights and economic conditions under President Robert Mugabe have resulted in a mass influx of Zimbabweans to South Africa in the past decade.
A late start to fingerprinting Zimbabwean migrants, which didn’t begin until January, was a significant cause of the week-long queues.
Home affairs sent an urgent mass SMS to the 142 431 applicants awaiting permits to remind them to get fingerprinted and submit travel documents and supporting papers to complete their files. Officials met members of the Zimbabwean Stakeholders Forum, on July 4, to try to gain more support from the migrant community.
Although the bulk of fingerprinting has been completed at some offices, leaders of the migrant community predict another wave of long queues as Zimbabweans are required to collect their permits.
“I know a lot of people waiting outside, even those who submitted applications in September,” said Gabriel Shumba, director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.
Home affairs rejected more than 11 000 applications, Shumba said, on grounds such as not providing proof of residence, an income tax return or a bank statement. Applicants were also rejected on the basis that they worked in the security sector, grounds which Shumba called a violation of “natural justice”.
Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma promised that applications rejected on those grounds would be reviewed. Home affairs has yet to communicate the status of those reviews. The long queues that have left Zimbabweans sleeping in the streets are only the residue of a larger crisis.
Bribery and abuse have plagued the queues. Home affairs officials shove and shout at those waiting in line and take bribes of as much as R400. Waiting for days also means missing work, or even losing one’s job, which challenges government policy that permits be issued free.
McKay said he had “not heard” of any bribes related to the dispensation queues and that it is the responsibility of the Zimbabwean Stakeholders’ Forum, not home affairs, to monitor corruption.
“If people are being solicited in queues, they must report it,” McKay said.
Zimbabweans waiting in the queue at the Harrison Street office in Johannesburg complained that officials would not communicate with those waiting in line, leaving them clueless about waiting times and office hour schedules. A Zimbabwean man recalled one morning when the office didn’t open until 11.30am and closed for a lunch break from 12.30pm to 3pm. “I don’t see any problems in the process,” McKay said, citing as the only issue the large number of applicants who came into the office at the same time.
What concerns Shumba more than anything else is that Zimbabweans who qualify for permits won’t receive them, either because the period for applications was too short or because Zimbabweans are being denied permits on unfair grounds.
Shumba said banks, for example, sometimes declined valid home affairs documents presented by Zimbabweans on the basis that they are handwritten. And employers of migrants have, in many cases, refused to fill out the forms required for Zimbabweans’ work permits.
Even navigating the asylum-seeking process can be a challenge to migrants who might be waiting for travel documents from the Zimbabwean government, or who simply have difficulty finding a refugee reception office.
Shumba said that when he met Mamabolo he was told that people “should not panic”.
Similarly, McKay said: “It is not necessary to sleep outside the office. We will make sure everyone is fingerprinted and documented accordingly.”
But Zimbabweans are not convinced. On paper ZDP policy grants undocumented Zimbabweans the right to live in the country, seek employment, have access to basic healthcare and attend educational facilities until July 31. But Zimbabweans and civil society groups alike reported that these rights have been infringed throughout the dispensation process.
Many Zimbabweans who applied for permits by the December deadline have been arrested by police officials and threatened with deportation, despite statements by McKay and other home affairs officials that this is against policy and will not be tolerated.
A Zimbabwean in the Harrison Street queue recalled how a policeman came to his home and said he would be arrested unless he paid R250; the second time police demanded R400. “They are just going door to door arresting people,” Shumba said, describing police he saw knocking on doors of homes in Kempton Park where Zimbabweans were hiding. He said civil society groups had brought the issue to Mamabolo’s attention but nothing has been done.
Representatives from the South African Police Service declined to comment.
‘After the deadline’
Home affairs officials have remained terse about what will happen to undocumented Zimbabweans nine days from now. Ronnie Mamoepa, the home affairs spokesperson, and McKay both refused to comment on what will happen after the deadline or on the estimated number of deportations.
But in September 2010 Themba Maseko, then a government spokesperson, told the Mail & Guardian that after the December 31 deadline “anybody who does not have any form of a permit will be deported”.
“When we finally conclude this project we will announce the number of rejections,” Mamabolo said. “Therefore, at this point, we are not talking about rejections in the process.” Civil society groups such as People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (Passop), based in Cape Town, pleaded with home affairs to extend the deadline by two months, on the basis that the Zimbabwean government has yet to finish issuing travel documents to its citizens.
But community leaders aren’t expecting an extension.
“I don’t see any extension,” Shumba said. “What I predict will happen is that there will be many hardships. We can only hope that we can convince the ministry to extend the process to help those who were denied getting passports on time.”
“Deportation” remains the word on most Zimbabweans’ lips.
Mass deportation means that a significant number who would legally qualify for refugee status will be deported, in violation of international conventions, civil society groups said.
Shumba said he hoped home affairs would conduct the deportations delicately to avoid human rights violations and the department would involve civil society groups.
“If you start mass deportation you are punishing and traumatising the people from Zimbabwe,” Shumba said, adding that the action would target Zimbabweans for xenophobic treatment. “We are dealing with cases of life and death here.”
Zimbabweans are likely to be only the first of major migrants from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to face mass deportation. Next in home affairs’ sights: migrants from other countries.
“The minister did indicate in Parliament that following this project, our intention is to document nationals of other neighbouring countries,” Mamoepa said. “At this stage our challenge is to conclude the process of documenting Zimbabweans who are in the country illegally ... The minister will make the appropriate announcement as to when we will begin documenting other SADC nationals.”
But to Shumba an impending mass deportation does not represent a solution. He predicts that South Africa will see a further influx of Zimbabweans in the near future, particularly if political violence spikes in Zimbabwe with the coming elections.
The Zimbabweans in the queue had a certain way of shaking hands—grasping your arm and then cradling your hand in theirs, as might be done between dear friends who haven’t seen one another for a long time.
In the same way, they hold onto their chance for a life here, profoundly conscious that only a fraction of them will be allowed to stay.
“The kids, they need mother care,” Chiana said, describing how she came to South Africa in the early 2000s and saved enough to bring her children to Johannesburg in 2006.
“To go back ... We can’t go back.”
Putting everything on the line
A young woman in a faded pink jacket waited in the queue. It was her fourth day. She held a blanket up to her chest, which she used to keep warm on the street at night. Thirty-year-old Maiba Ngwenya* is a domestic worker who came to Johannesburg alone in 2004 because she couldn’t earn enough in Zimbabwe to feed her family.
She left her boys, 10 and eight, and her daughter, four, at home with her mother. Her husband is dead.
She said she would pay a bribe if she could, except doing so would be at the expense of food, so she waited with those in the back, who also couldn’t afford the extra cost. She often thinks of her children, she said, “because when I’m working and making small money, I can send it to them for food or clothes”.
Ngwenya can’t afford to bring her children to South Africa.
“You leave because of suffering,” she said. “You have no food, no rights [in Zimbabwe]. There is no work. There is no money.”
Ngwenya, among thousands of other Zimbabweans, didn’t have a passport when she crossed the border. Linda Chiana*, another woman in the queue, estimated that it cost about R1 200 to apply for a visa in Zimbabwe, which was simply too much for her to afford.
“It has taken a lot of time to get the money to get the visa,” Ngwenya said, describing how she saved earnings in South Africa for the application. She hoped the permit would be processed smoothly, but said she was concerned about whether hers would be ready in time.
Ngwenya said working in South Africa is complicated by xenophobic sentiments. “They [South Africans] call us names,” she said. “They want to work alone.”
Jacob Mamabolo, head of the Zimbabwean Documentation Process, said in a recent statement that most Zimbabwean migrants are “without skills”.
Director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, Gabriel Shumba, who is also a refugee, disagreed, describing his people as “very skilled”.
He was a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe, but in South Africa he would need permanent residence or citizenship to practise. He has lived in South Africa for eight years and hasn’t been able to acquire either.
“We bring electrical engineers to this country. We bring doctors and teachers to this country,” Shumba said. “But because there is a refusal in many instances to integrate these people, you will find that those skills become redundant and they get lost not only to Zimbabwe, but to South Africa.”
The M&G visited the Harrison Square Home Affairs office in Johannesburg where thousands of Zimbabweans queued to get fingerprinted. Only four officials were taking fingerprints. The office is the only such office open in all of Johannesburg; the Market Street office closed weeks earlier without warning.
The street reeks. The pavement is slick from banana peels; wrappers and trash litter the ground. Women congregate towards the back of the queue, wrapping themselves in blankets, which they say they use when they sleep outside at night, on a sidewalk under an overhang across the street. Someone walks by with a white bucket full of peanuts, selling them to those waiting in line.
A handful of officials manage the queue, which is more of an amorphous crowd. A young man tries to push his way forward to the start of the ramp, which is packed with people, angry and exhausted. The side of his face is caked with dust, probably the result of sleeping outside the night before. There is something about his face that makes it impossible to turn away; an expression of a fundamental urgency to survive.
People wait for days, sometimes a full week, in the queues, with many arriving as early as 2am or 3am to get a good spot.
Patty Shiraara, a Zimbabwean woman at the Pretoria Street office, is in the queue for her fifth day. Shiraara sits with a blanket heaped on her lap near a fence that wraps around the office, one of hundreds huddled in clusters, gathering cardboard around themselves and making fires to keep warm.
But the Zimbabweans wait because they know that if they return to Zimbabwe they may not be able to find work to feed their families.
“We are trying to make a better life in South Africa,” says a man in the crowd. “I am lucky to be here. I went through hell to get here.”—*Names have been changed