In Zimbabwe, food shortages, a near total collapse of the domestic economy, and continued political repression are forcing large numbers of citizens to seek refuge and sustenance for their families in neighboring countries. South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana are focusing entirely on negotiations over the political stalemate in Zimbabwe, either directly or through the Southern African Development Community. In this context, any recognition of large numbers of Zimbabweans inside their borders is seen as counter-productive, as it draws attention to the humanitarian crisis inside Zimbabwe.
While a political solution is necessary for the long-term stability of the country, it is unlikely that negotiations will reverse the current migratory trends. Regional governments must begin to de-link a political solution inside Zimbabwe from the need to address the domestic consequences of Zimbabwean migration, including strains on social services, xenophobia, and the growth of an undocumented underclass that is in need of humanitarian assistance.
Get Beyond the Refugees or Economic Migrants Debate
There is contentious debate over the reasons that Zimbabweans are leaving their home country. Estimates of the number of Zimbabweans living in neighboring countries range widely, from 1.1 to over 3 million, and on a recent assessment mission in the region Refugees International found that people were continuing to leave
the country in large numbers. While the governments of host countries and many in the United Nations consider the current migration to be economic in nature, a wide range of civil society groups are calling for Zimbabweans to be recognized as refugees. Clearly, not all Zimbabweans have a fear of persecution. RI found, however, that economic and political grounds for leaving are not mutually exclusive. The attempt to categorize the outflow ultimately obstructs the humanitarian response by focusing on why people do (or do not) qualify for aid.
What is clear is that Zimbabwe currently suffers from a near complete lack of basic goods – food, petrol, soap, paraffin – and that Zimbabweans outside their country are actively engaged in providing those goods to family members back home. Host countries, in particular South Africa and Botswana, should work towards creating new legal frameworks that acknowledge the nature of Zimbabwean migration and provide adequate protection and assistance to those in need. This new legal framework must be brought about in dialogue with civil society groups and the UN. Furthermore, it should acknowledge regional dynamics to ensure no single country shoulders the burden of the response.
Deportations Must Cease
South Africa and Botswana are actively deporting undocumented migrants, largely targeting Zimbabweans. The majority of Zimbabweans in both countries are residing illegally, after “jumping” the borders or overstaying their visas. Over 150,000 have been forcibly removed from South Africa in the first nine months of this year, while 60,000 have been deported from Botswana as of December of last year. Upon arrival in Zimbabwe, the deportees are released into the custody of the police, raising serious protection concerns. Furthermore, large numbers of deportees regularly re-cross the borders illegally immediately after deportation, where they are subject to dangerous environmental conditions and often fall prey to criminal gangs. Lastly, deportations are very costly for host governments and do not achieve the goal of deterring undocumented migration.
Humanitarian Needs are Growing
While many Zimbabweans are able to maintain middle-class lives abroad, a growing number of people cannot find work to provide adequate shelter or nutrition. Zimbabweans often live in shared apartments, where 20 people or more sleep in shifts. Other, less fortunate Zimbabweans are sleeping in the streets, at bus stations, in makeshift shelters, in half-built homes at construction sites, or in churches that act as shelters. Among this class of Zimbabweans, most people Refugees International talked to reported eating only once a day, or even less often if they could not find work. This situation is compounded by the need of Zimbabweans to support families at home. Many reported sending more than 50% of their earnings home, and surviving on the bare minimum that remains. As one woman told us, “If I eat,
then my children will not.” Humanitarian assistance needs to be provided to these Zimbabweans who insist on maintaining their ability to send remittances home.
As more Zimbabweans arrive in neighboring countries, the need for emergency shelter, feeding, medical attention, and other services will only continue to grow. Already there has been a rapid growth in church-based shelters throughout South Africa responding to the lack of housing. International agencies that are operational in southern Africa should explore ways to integrate Zimbabweans into existing programs, and evaluate the possibility of providing new services to them. This need is particularly acute in Botswana, where few operational humanitarian organizations are present.
The United Nations and bilateral donor programs should focus on expanding the capacity of government hospitals and other public services to meet the needs of Zimbabweans. Operational programs of non-governmental organizations should look to provide new services for Zimbabweans and vulnerable members of the host community. The current scope of need is manageable if agencies begin to respond in the near-term. However, if programming does not move quickly, the continued increase of Zimbabwean migration in the region could swell to unmanageable proportions over the course of the coming year.
A New Approach
Contingency planning currently underway by the United Nations does not reflect the reality of present-day Zimbabwe. Though all plans are confidential, conversations with UN officials indicate that current planning is based on a scenario involving “massive influx” of Zimbabweans into neighboring countries over a short period of time. Such a response would entail setting up traditional refugee camps and providing humanitarian assistance in that context. As one official described to us, such a plan would be triggered by “hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border in a few weeks.” Rather than planning for such a scenario, the United Nations must begin to base its contingency planning on the continued, steady flow of Zimbabweans out of their home country, exactly what is happening at present. The current trend promises hundreds of thousands of people crossing borders and blending into the ranks of the urban poor in the upcoming months, a scenario that requires equal attention, planning and response.
Lastly, the United Nations system must make firm decisions about leadership and coordination regarding Zimbabweans in the region. Currently, there is little or no effective leadership on this issue among agencies, largely because they claim that their mandate does not allow for more work with this population. A lead agency must be appointed, with regional responsibility for coordination activities, contingency/strategic planning, and relations with host governments. Operational agencies that RI met with are asking for formal coordination and information sharing as they look to address Zimbabweans in their work plans, and it is an appropriate and important role for the UN to play.
Advocates Sean Garcia and Patrick Duplat just returned from a one-month assessment of the situation for Zimbabweans in the southern Africa region.