South Africa Attempts to Help Zimbabwe Migrants through New Permit System

Published: 1 May 2009

Refugee Rights News
May 2009

[The new permit is] a clear turning point in South Africa, which up until now has had a line that there is no problem in Zimbabwe.” – Gerry Simpson, a refugee researcher with HRW

Over a million Zimbabweans currently residing in South Africa have finally been granted a respite from their constantly insecure status in South Africa. On 3 April, the government of South Africa announced that it would drop its visa requirements for Zimbabweans and, more importantly, grant temporary six month work permits to Zimbabweans living in the country. A month later, on 1 May, South Africa’s immigration minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakulu, along with her two Zimbabwean counterparts, announced that the new visitor permits and visa policy would come into effect immediately, but that the guaranteed time of stay would be 90 days, rather than the promised six months. These “special dispensation permits” will legalise the stay of Zimbabweans and give them work rights and access to basic healthcare and education. Despite the shortening of the “visiting” period, this policy change represents a long overdue and much needed overhaul.

The Zimbabwean Migration and Earlier Responses

For years, millions of Zimbabweans have migrated to Africa’s most prosperous economy. They have fled from political violence, mass forced evictions, and poverty resulting from Zimbabwe’s political and financial collapse. Some sought protection from persecution, others economic opportunity. Before the recent policy shift, these migrants were plunged into an environment filled with uncertainly once across the border.

South Africa’s response to this influx and the enormous burden that accompanied it – with up to 8,000 people applying for asylum per day – included large scale enforcement actions, particularly deportations, and a path of quiet diplomacy in response to the crisis which is pushing immigrants and asylum seekers into South Africa. Illegal Zimbabweans, many willing to work for less than the minimum wage, also became targets of resentment within South Africa.

The South African government failed to proactively address the situation, establishing no particular measures for Zimbabweans. Hundreds of thousands were deported, justified by the contention that Zimbabweans were all economic immigrants, rather than persons in need of protection.

There seems, however, now to be a shift to asking “what can the government do to help these desperate migrants” from “how can we get rid of this economic and social nuisance”. Deputy Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba’s statement that migration patterns between South Africa and Zimbabwe “have probably changed permanently”, exhibits a significant change in approach. This acknowledgment is a first promising step in addressing the needs of Zimbabweans.

The New Plan

According to the new government policy, work permits, as previously mentioned, will last for three months with the possibility of an extension if conditions in Zimbabwe do not improve. In essence, these permits will regularise the stay of Zimbabweans, temporarily granting them the right to remain and to work with the same workplace rights as South Africans.

The new policy also drops previous visa requirements. Prior to this, Zimbabweans had to apply for a visa to enter South Africa legally, and were often asked to provide large sums of money. The cost associated with acquiring a visa placed serious constraints on Zimbabweans and hindered trade with South Africa by preventing traders from crossing the border. Fortunately, the shift in policy respects the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) protocol on the free movement of goods and people. Now Angola, DRC, and Tanzania are they only remaining SADC countries whose nationals still need visas to travel to South Africa, and these restrictions are also under review.

Welcoming the New Policy

Upon implementation, the temporary working status granted by the permits is expected to have four main benefits: 1) protecting Zimbabweans against exploitation and violence; 2) allowing Zimbabweans to be more independent and economically productive; 3) permitting South Africans and Zimbabweans to compete more fairly for jobs by eliminating the incentives for Zimbabweans to work for less than minimum wage; and 4) relieving South Africa’s overtaxed asylum system.

Another important aspect of the new policy is that Zimbabwean migrants will now be able to travel back and forth across the border easily, enabling them to bring remittances and food back to their relatives in Zimbabwe.

The decision to allow Zimbabweans to work was met with praise by the activist community. International NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, and local human rights activists applauded the move. Gerry Simpson, a refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch, proclaimed, “After years of fleeing persecution and economic meltdown, well over a million Zimbabweans in South Africa will finally get the protection they deserve.” (South Africa: Permits Will Make Zimbabweans Safer. Human Rights Watch, 3 April 2009)

Arnold Tsunga, a prominent Zimbabwean activist, welcomed the declarations, stating that “if implemented and well applied, we can expect that these measures will contribute to curb the human rights violations perpetrated against migrants, in particular against undocumented ones.” (South Africa Could Grant a 6 Months Work Permit to Zimbabweans. FIDH, 15 April 2009) Aside from the mass deportations and rights violations which Tsunga hopes this policy will end, some feel that xenophobic attitudes of the public might also begin to subside. Removing the “stigma of illegitimacy” from Zimbabweans and making it clear that they are not necessarily criminals or stealing jobs could ease tensions. As Bishop Paul Verryn of Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church – a place, which provides sanctuary for Zimbabweans fleeing violence and joblessness — says “[a]nything that begins to say to South Africans they [Zimbabweans] are legitimate, the better.”

Others argue the permits will be economically beneficial. The advantage to Zimbabweans is obvious: the permits enable these migrants to legally work and earn a living. On the South African side there are also advantages. Zimbabwe is a market for South African products and an inflow of capital may stimulate demand in addition to South African businesses being able to benefit from the skills of Zimbabwean workers.

Challenges Ahead

Despite the evident benefits, there are still many clear difficulties with the plan. One of the biggest concerns is the logistics of implementing the policy. It is not clear that the Department of Home Affairs, or the other government departments that must play their part, have the capacity to document and issue permits to the hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans in South Africa. Immigration Minister Mapisa-Nqakulu admitted that while the new regulations have been put into effect, bureaucratic hurdles could slow implementation.

Further, Zimbabweans will also be required to prove their nationality in order to access permits. According to an article by Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), current methods used to determine someone’s country of origin include “proficiency in the languages spoken there, and testing specific local knowledge of the regions people claim to come from”. Although possibly effective, these criteria can be ambiguous and may not be a good indicator of national origin, opening the door for the inappropriate deportations. There is a continuing policy of arresting and deporting anyone who does not have an immigration or asylum permit or cannot prove their nationality. Difficulties in implementing the scheme may still leave many Zimbabweans vulberable. Human Rights Watch has reported that since the announcement of the permit policy on 3 April, police have continued to detain and deport Zimbabweans. On 16 April, for example, police drove a group of Zimbabweans previously detained in Musina to the border, despite the refusal of border officials to issue them exit documents. Without the proper documents to prove their nationality, the Zimbabweans were denied entry into their home country and were forced back into imprisonment. It is unclear whether these police ignored government orders or were just entirely unaware of the policy change. (South Africa: Stop Deporting Zimbabweans. Human Rights Watch, 30 April 2009).

Furthermore, there are speculations about the timing, in the context of the changing administration in South Africa. “We’re a little bemused by the timing of it,” said Loren Landau, director of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witswatersand. “In some ways seems like exactly the wrong time … [but] my guess is that the minister wants some kind of legacy around this issue”.

A final concern is possibility that the policy will increase the number of Zimbabweans crossing the border. Jacob Matakanye, CEO of the Musina Legal Advice Centre, recognises this problem: “the special permits will see people coming, knowing that they will not be pushed back home, and there will be a problem in Musina, as greater numbers will come across, and where are they going to stay? There is no shelter.” There is certainly concern that the overcrowding and increased competition that might result from the attraction of the permits could create tensions among the local populations and spark xenophobic feelings.

Despite these criticisms and potential problems, however, the new policy is a distinct change from the status quo and evidence of a substantial shift in the country’s stance. A whole population will finally be protected under the law and given the opportunity to be legally employed. Instead of fleeing a crisis only to encounter new hardships, Zimbabweans may finally find safe haven in South Africa. The next step, and perhaps the most important, is for the South African government to take collective action among its departments and successfully implement the permit system.

Regions: Southern Africa, South Africa
Type: Advocacy