In May 2007, speaking to the National Assembly, President Mbeki summed up his government’s attitude to the crisis-driven escalation of cross-border migration from Zimbabwe, saying: “As for Zimbabweans who enter South Africa legally, well, they enter South Africa legally and there wouldn’t be any need to do anything about that, but as to this other influx of illegal people, I personally think it’s something that we have to live with …. You can’t put a Great Wall of China between South Africa and Zimbabwe to stop people walking across…”
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) the South African authorities deported a total of 102 413 illegal migrants to Zimbabwe between January and June 2007, a monthly average of 17 000. This compares with a much lower (but still high) monthly average of 4 000 in 2004.
The Zimbabwe exodus poses numerous problems for the implementation of South African immigration policy. For instance, Zimbabwean applications for asylum are the second largest component in a backlog which by 2007 had reached 144 000 despite what the department of Home Affairs called ‘concerted efforts’ to reduce it.
However, there are opportunities as well as challenges for South Africa in receiving this influx of people. According to the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) of the 17086 evaluations of qualifications it performed between January and September 2007, 9756 (57%) were for the purpose of processing Zimbabweans’ work permit applications. This suggests quite a high level of skills among the migrants.
Hard facts on immigration dynamics are notoriously difficult to establish everywhere in the world, but recent research in South Africa offers at least tentative answers to some of the important questions about recent migration from Zimbabwe.
How many migrants are there and who are they? Authoritative numbers on migration from Zimbabwe remain elusive. However, survey evidence and deduction from what we know about Zimbabwe’s population statistics suggest that the higher estimates – 3 million is one – are unlikely to be true figures and perhaps 1 million recent migrants are the best estimate we have at this moment.
A survey of 4654 Zimbabweans in Johannesburg, conducted by Unisa Professor Daniel Makina in mid-2007 produced some important pointers. 92% of the sample had migrated between 2000-2007; the reason for leaving varied with the year of departure – for 2002-2006, the majority cited political reasons, for 2007: the majority cited unemployment as a main driver; the majority of migrants were aged between 21 and 40 years; and the majority of the sample possessed matriculation and over 30% had a post-secondary education.
Are patterns of migration from Zimbabwe changing? Although there has been a rapid escalation in numbers since Zimbabwe’s crises in 2000, migration of this sort has been going on for a long time and is made up of many types of people in whose lives migration plays different parts. Some are seeking temporary refuge, others circulate between Zimbabwe and South Africa, trading or sending remittances, while still others remain and build lives here. More women and children – increasingly including unaccompanied minors – are arriving in South Africa. The origins and destinations of migrants are showing more variation: arrivals from the more northern areas of Zimbabwe are reported as increasing, and a significant proportion of Zimbabwean arrivals now congregate in urban centres, as opposed to border areas. Many Zimbabweans rely on regular traffic of people and commodities to and from South Africa.
What has been South Africa’s response? In spite of reports of increasing numbers of Zimbabwean migrants arriving in the country, national government has been relatively silent on a policy solution to this trend. The Minister of Home Affairs, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nkaqula, has acknowledged the need for a “new approach” towards irregular migration, recognising both the unsustainable costs of detention and repatriation, and the futility of these processes when deportees continue to return to South Africa. However, there have been no steps forward on this issue, and the asylum claims system appears to be carrying much of the weight of incoming migrants from Zimbabwe. Temporary residency permits were floated by the Department of Home Affairs in 2007, but the department has not followed through with this suggestion.
Another policy avenue open to government is to implement the SADC Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons, a statement in favour of the principle of freer movement of people in the region. Any attempt to base policies on the ideals of the Protocol would in practice require these policies to take into account the uneven economic realities of the region and align them with South Africa’s national interests, since it is the destination for most of the migration in the region.
The push factors of economic decay in Zimbabwe and the pull of South Africa’s relatively robust economic performance will continue to drive migration. Whatever the prospects of political settlement, recovery will be a long and difficult haul and cross border migration is set to remain an ongoing challenge to South African policy makers.
Many issues are raised by these facts. How do we deal with the gap between obligations and delivery in refugee and asylum matters? Is it purely a matter of bureaucratic capacity? Are the burdens of coping with an exodus from an increasingly intolerable Zimbabwe South Africa’s alone or should they be internationalised? What are the realistic limits, costs and benefits of attempts to control people flows? For example, does the failure of the ‘arrest, detain, deport’ policy mean we should look for alternatives or devote more resources and effort – including re-assigning responsibility for it – to its operation? For example, how much does the country want to spend on border control? Are we making enough use of the skills Zimbabwean migrants have to offer to fill the skills gaps that are a constraint on South Africa’s growth? What are the actual impacts of migration on crime, and service delivery including health, education and welfare – especially given the ease of integration of Southern African migrants and apparent ease in fraudulently obtaining identity documents? What do the migrants contribute to the South African economy?
The absence of convincing answers to these challenging questions about Zimbabwean migration highlights a lack of realism and failure of leadership within South Africa on the crucial issues of regional migration. Beneath its surface tolerance, the passive attitude typified by President Mbeki’s suggestion that we ‘just live with’ escalating illegal migration carries dangers with it.
Experience from other countries – notably the UK and other European states – makes clear that failure to take charge of refugee and asylum issues and demonstrate the ability not only to be generous but administratively efficient in discharging obligations, risks discrediting all migration in the eyes of the public.
Immigrants – at all skills levels – have contributed significantly to South Africa’s economic success and could contribute much more. If a well-managed immigration policy is to facilitate that potential contribution, it is essential that every aspect of migration issues, humanitarian, emergency, economic and political should be managed with the effectiveness and decisiveness that brings public confidence.
- Ann Bernstein is the executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise.