Thousands of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa could face deportation in the New Year.
In September, South African authorities declared that they were cracking down on illegal immigration, and that any Zimbabwean migrants who had not applied for a visa by December 31 would be forced to go home.
Now, with just a few days to go before the deadline expires, migrants are queuing round the block at Department of Home Affairs offices to organise their documentation – with some claiming they have been forced to wait in line for several days to simply pick up an application form.
There are are currently between two and three million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, of whom less than half are believed to have valid documentation.
As of December 22 however, less than 13,000 applications had been received – of which only 43,087 are understood to have been processed. From those which have been been adjudicated, 10,844 have been denied.
Many migrants are believed to have been unable to apply because they cannot afford to take the necessary time off work to queue. Others have been held back by the fact they need a Zimbabwean passport to apply – something many illegal migrants do not have.
The authorities have increased staff levels and extended working hours over the Christmas period, as well as simplifying some aspects of the application process, but have rejected appeals from pleas from migrants to extend the deadline.
“My department is committed to ensuring that all Zimbabwean nationals are documented so they can begin to live productive lives in South Africa, free from fear of persecution,” said Minister of Home Affairs Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. “I am…convinced that all Zimbabwean nationals will have an opportunity to hand in their applications.”
Human rights groups have accused the goverment of setting an unrealistic timeframe for the application process, with some going so far as to suggest it is a deliberate measure to facilitate the expulsion of large numbers of migrants.
The increasing number of migrants entering South Africa from Zimbawe in recent years has triggered hostility from parts of the South African population.
The government has responded by saying that efforts to get Zimbabwean nationals to apply for the correct documentation were implemented between April 2009 and 2010, and that the September-December timeframe was intended only to give those had not yet applied a chance to do so. “Therefore, far from Zimbabweans having only three months to submit to this process, they have had a year and three months” said Dlamini Zuma.
Braam Hanekom, a spokesman for the migrants rights group People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty, said that his organisation was “completely against deportation of Zimbabweans who are not criminals and who are either rejected refugee applicants or undocumented.
“We believe that every effort should be made to meet the deadline, by all stakeholders and that if there remain large numbers of Zimbabweans queuing at the offices the department should seriously consider its extension,” he said.
Although the deadline for applications will not be extended, authorities have stated that deportations will not begin until the last application has been processed.
“It is unclear when the moratorium on deportations will be lifted,” said Mr Hanekom.
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