South Africa: Changing pattern of displacement from Zimbabwe

Briefing Notes, 11 July 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 11 July 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR has noticed some disturbing developments with the pattern of displacement from Zimbabwe following the March general elections and accelerating since the 27 June presidential run-off vote, with more refugees crossing the border into South Africa seeking asylum. Previously, most Zimbabweans crossing the border were single men (about 90 percent) or women seeking work. We are now seeing however, an increasing number of families arriving as a result of political violence, with several people showing signs of beatings or torture.

In the town of Musina near the northern border with Zimbabwe, there is a visible presence of vulnerable Zimbabweans sleeping rough in the bush, begging at the traffic lights and clearly in distressed circumstances and desperately needing humanitarian help. Most of the support they are getting comes from faith-based groups, but the resources of these groups are very limited. We are seeing how UNHCR can reinforce these efforts.

A further indication of the evolving refugee situation is the growing crowds of Zimbabweans around 3,000-4,000 approaching the Crown Mines Refugee Registration Office in Johannesburg each Thursday and Friday, the days set aside for Zimbabwean asylum seekers.

Many new arrivals are entering the country through unauthorized border points those entering legally usually do not claim asylum upon entry making it difficult to give an accurate estimate of the numbers involved. Fearful of arrest and deportation, they remain underground, making them vulnerable to other forms of violence and exploitation such as rape and robbery. According to reliable sources, in the last 40 days alone, some 17,000 Zimbabweans have been deported from South Africa through the Beit Bridge border post, despite earlier calls from UNHCR to suspend all deportations.

In our view, the large scale deportations, coupled with the difficulties that Zimbabweans face braving the crowds to access the national asylum procedure, create a real risk that refoulement or forcible return to their country of origin where they could face danger could occur. In response, working together with the authorities, we have reinforced our presence at the border and are making daily visits to the detention and deportation facility in Musina to identify Zimbabwean asylum seekers and refer them to the appropriate government authorities. We are also discussing these issues with the government to try and ensure that refugees and asylum seekers get the protection they need.

The High Commissioner is reiterating his appeal to South Africa to halt all deportations of Zimbabweans and ensure that those seeking asylum should have access to the national asylum procedures. We continue to urge South Africa to exceptionally grant Zimbabweans a temporary legal status allowing them to stay in the country, an option which is foreseen in national legislation.

UNHCR recognises that there is a complex situation in South Africa, with a large number of Zimbabweans already in South Africa before the recent political developments in Zimbabwe. We will continue supporting the South African authorities in strengthening the national asylum system and in all efforts to ensure protection to refugees and asylum seekers presently in the country. There are presently more than 138,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa, coming from a wide range of countries.

Zimbabwean asylum seekers have also been reported arriving in neighbouring countries since March with some 700 arrivals in Botswana where they have been processed quickly by the government and 38 arrivals in Zambia. UNHCR monitoring teams in Mozambique's border provinces have also identified several hundred asylum seekers from Zimbabwe who need protection.




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

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South AfricaPlay video

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.
Zimbabweans in South AfricaPlay video

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.