Determined Zimbabweans flow into South Africa

News Stories, 9 October 2007

© UNHCR/J.Redden
The Beit Bridge over the Limpopo River connecting Zimbabwe to South Africa is the busiest border crossing in South Africa.

BEIT BRIDGE CROSSING, South Africa, October 9 (UNHCR) Each dusk the cat-and-mouse game begins: Zimbabweans cross the Limpopo River and slip through the fence into South Africa, while South African authorities patrol the border to intercept and fill their trucks with Zimbabweans who will be deported within hours.

In September, a typical month, some 7,300 Zimbabweans were deported just from Musina, the main South African town near the bridge over the Limpopo to Zimbabwe. From all of South Africa, more than 20,000 Zimbabweans accused of illegally entering South Africa are deported each month probably including people caught repeatedly.

South Africa is facing a complex situation, with growing numbers of both economic migrants and asylum seekers arriving from many parts of Africa. Nearly a thousand people a month arrive across the bridge, South Africa's busiest border point, asking for asylum. These asylum seekers mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Horn of Africa are issued with documents that allow them to continue on to Johannesburg, where they can enter a formal application for refugee status.

However, only one Zimbabwean in the last four months has requested asylum from South African immigration officials at the border. There are various explanations advanced: reluctance to request asylum when still so close to Zimbabwe, anxiety to reach their destination in the South African heartland, a lack of opportunity because they are deported so swiftly, or simply no desire to assume a status that means they cannot visit their homeland.

Substantial numbers of Zimbabweans do apply for asylum at other refugee offices in South Africa about 19,000 last year. However, these Zimbabweans remain a relatively small percentage of the hundreds of thousands who annually enter the country. Those intercepted are only a portion of the undocumented Zimbabweans who get through the fence into South Africa.

"The situation in Zimbabwe is complex, as are the reasons for people leaving. We have to acknowledge the human rights dimension of recent developments in Zimbabwe. Some Zimbabweans do ask for asylum. Their numbers are significant in absolute terms. For the moment, however, they remain a small percentage of the very large number of Zimbabweans who are reportedly outside of their country," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in August.

Staff of the UN refugee agency regularly monitor the borders of Zimbabwe not just in South Africa but also in Mozambique, Botswana and Zambia where other Zimbabweans head to see why people are leaving and if they need protection. The economic pressures on those living in Zimbabwe, where shelves are nearly empty, are clear: the manager of the main supermarket in Musina reported the daily flood of shoppers from Zimbabwe in recent months generated sales equal to those normally seen in the pre-Christmas season.

Arriving Zimbabweans mainly young men say they have come to earn funds to support families who remain at home, where unemployment has been estimated at 80 percent. Many return home regularly which is not permitted if they are refugees and the number of Zimbabweans intercepted rises early in the year as they return from the holiday season with families.

There is clearly a humanitarian crisis when so many people feel compelled to leave their country. Although UNHCR's prime focus is on ensuring that those in need of protection from persecution have access to the asylum system, it has encouraged organizations helping needy Zimbabweans arriving in South Africa to provide humanitarian assistance.

UNHCR is also working with the government of South Africa to speed up the processing of applications for refugee status, a problem of capacity that has affected all asylum seekers. With some 140,000 applications from citizens of scores of countries still awaiting decisions, South Africa's Department of Home Affairs is hiring additional staff and improving procedures. Fortunately, the renewable temporary papers issued to all asylum seekers by the government mean they can remain in South Africa while they are awaiting a decision.

The number of people willing to cross the dangerous waters of the Limpopo the rainy season that is just beginning increases the threat of crocodiles indicates the depth of the problem facing Zimbabweans. The flow of migrants from Zimbabwe will end when it regains economic and social stability.

On the N1 National Highway leading south from the bridge named for mining magnate Alfred Beit to South Africa's industrial heartland around Johannesburg, police checkpoints intercept Zimbabweans who have evaded the first sweeps near the border. But authorities readily admit that those they take back to Zimbabwe in the morning are probably crossing again as night returns.

By Jack Redden
at the Beit Bridge crossing, South Africa




UNHCR country pages

South Africa's Invisible People

In March 2011, UNHCR initiated a project with the South African non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), to tackle the issue of statelessness. The specific goals of the project were to provide direct legal services to stateless people and those at risk of statelessness; to engage government on the need for legal reform to prevent and reduce statelessness; to raise awareness about stateless people and their rights; and to advocate for the ratification of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness.

LHR had conceived the project a year earlier after noticing that large numbers of Zimbabwean-born asylum-seekers were telling its staff that they faced problems getting jobs, studying or setting up businesses - all allowed under South African law. They told LHR that when they applied for Zimbabwean passports, necessary to access these rights, they were informed by consular officials that they were no longer recognized as Zimbabwean citizens. This effectively made them stateless.

Since the project's inception, LHR has reached more than 2,000 people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. These people came from more than 20 different countries. It has identified numerous categories of concern in South Africa, both migrants and those born in the country.

The following photo set portrays some of the people who have been, or are being, helped by the project. The portraits were taken by photographer Daniel Boshoff. Some of the subjects asked that their names be changed.

South Africa's Invisible People

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa where registered refugees and asylum-seekers can legally move about freely, access social services and compete with locals for jobs.

But while these right are enshrined in law, in practice they are sometimes ignored and refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves turned away by employers or competing with the poorest locals for the worst jobs - especially in the last few years, as millions have fled political and economic woes in countries like Zimbabwe. The global economic downturn has not helped.

Over the last decade, when times turned tough, refugees in towns and cities sometimes became the target of the frustrations of locals. In May 2008, xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other parts of the country, killing more than 60 people and displacing about 100,000 others.

In Atteridgeville, on the edge of the capital city of Pretoria - and site of some of the worst violence - South African and Somali traders, assisted by UNHCR, negotiated a detailed agreement to settle the original trade dispute that led to the torching of Somali-run shops. The UN refugee agency also supports work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to counter xenophobia.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

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Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South Africa

Living in Pretoria as a refugee or asylum-seeker is challenging. Most either live rough on the streets or in cramped apartments in townships. There are also tensions with locals because of the perception that foreigners get a better deal than South African citizens.
Top business partners renew supportPlay video

Top business partners renew support

Executives from Manpower, Young & Rubicam, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Microsoft visit UNHCR operations in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia.
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Zimbabweans in South Africa

While Zimbabwe's main political rivals have agreed to hold power-sharing talks, there are continued reports of instability and violence in the country. The flow of Zimbabweans seeking asylum in neigbouring South Africa is growing, rather than ebbing. The UN refugee agency reports that there are more and more women and children joining the exodus.