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Refugee Rights News
Volume 1, Issue 2
December 2004

Advocates in South Africa Help Ease the Plight of Zimbabwean Asylum Seekers

In November 2004, the Solidarity Peace Trust based in Port Shepstone, South Africa released a 107-page report, “No War in Zimbabwe: An Account of the Exodus of a Nation’s People.” The report details the difficulties faced by Zimbabwean asylum seekers in South Africa.

Although all asylum seekers in South Africa face delays in the processing of their applications due to backlogs of applications and xenophobia, Solidarity Peace Trust has documented how the situation of Zimbabweans is particularly difficult. According to Solidarity Peace Trust this is, at least in part, due to a lack of awareness of the human rights crisis in Zimbabwe, and the corresponding perception that Zimbabweans come to South Africa for economic reasons and are not legitimate asylum seekers.

Advocates have attempted to challenge this perception in a number of ways. In 2002, the University of the Witswatersrand Law Clinic prepared a test case involving 5 Zimbabweans in 2002, a case which was ultimately successful in winning asylum for those involved. Earlier this year, the US-based advocacy organization Refugees International (RI) conducted a mission in which they assessed that many Zimbabweans in South Africa feared persecution at home. In some cases, however, RI noted that Zimbabweans often had both economic and political reasons for fleeing their countries, making the job of adjudicators more difficult.

Despite these efforts, Solidarity Peace Trust reports that South African officials continue to attribute the influx of Zimbabweans into South Africa to economic motivations. The Director of the Home Affairs reportedly commented in October that he imagined that many Zimbabweans were leaving for economic reasons and that neither the UN Refugee Convention nor South African law provided for the recognition of refugee status to those moving for economic reasons.

While the economic motivations of many Zimbabweans on the move is not in question, the fear on the part of civil society organizations like Solidarity Peace Trust is that comments like these can lead to serious obstacles for individual refugees who are genuinely threatened by persecution. Solidarity Peace Trust says that it has documented numerous instances of South African government officials who were unwilling to consider the asylum applications of Zimbabweans, or who have refused to issue asylum seeker permits (which entitle the bearer to remain in South Africa while his or her application for refugee status is being processed). In other cases they claim that the applications of Zimbabweans have been unduly delayed.

Of particular concern in this context is the way in which the cases of those who are claiming to have been victims of political manipulation of food aid distributions in Zimbabwe are being treated. According to Solidarity Peace Trust, decision-making as to who receives food distributions in Zimbabwe is highly politicized and there is a clear relationship between political affiliation and access to food. Cases based on such discrimination may not, however, be receiving the attention that they deserve because of the fact that the situation of such individuals is perceived as rooted in “economic” harm. Of course, in international law discrimination in the enjoyment of basic rights, including the right to food, on the grounds of political opinion may found a successful refugee claim. Solidarity Peace Trust cites the need for a test case in South Africa which would allow the courts to clarify this issue.

The government of South Africa maintains that there is no bias against Zimbabweans in the asylum system. It claims that the delays cited in the report are merely those experienced by all asylum seekers and notes that more than 70% of Zimbabwean applications have been accepted, although acknowledging that only 21 decisions have been issued thus far. UNHCR has also pointed out that many Zimbabweans chose not to formally access the asylum process, preferring to retain the ability to travel back and forth between the two countries.

The difficulties highlighted by the report of Solidarity Peace Trust, coupled with the responses of the UNHCR and South African government, clearly highlight the complexity of the situation of Zimbabwean asylum seekers and underscore the need for a more nuanced understanding of the complex interplay of forces which force individuals to flee. There is also certainly much more to be done to ensure that Zimbabweans understand the asylum process and can access it when that is appropriate.

The full report of can be accessed on Solidarity Peace Trust’s website.

See also Refugees International, “UNHCR inattention places refugees in jeopardy,” at and “Zimbabweans in South Africa: Denied Access to Political Asylum.”