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South Africa to ease immigration rules for Zimbabweans

Resource type: News

Associated Press Worldstream |


South Africa is planning to ease immigration rules for the thousands of Zimbabweans fleeing their country’s economic and humanitarian crises, an official said Tuesday.

Home Affairs spokeswoman Siobhan McCarthy said Zimbabweans would be given a special status that allows them to stay and work legally in the country, though details of the new system are still being finalized.

At least 3 million Zimbabweans live in South Africa, and thousands more cross the border every day. Zimbabwe has the world’s highest official inflation rate, a hunger crisis leaving most people dependent on foreign handouts and a cholera epidemic that has killed 4,000 people since August.

For years South Africa had been reluctant to recognize Zimbabweans as refugees, viewing them as illegal economic migrants.

Human rights activists have called on South Africa to give Zimbabweans special immigration status. Many Zimbabweans want to work and live in South Africa and move freely between the two countries to ferry food and other goods to family across the border.

Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, from Lawyers for Human Rights, cautiously welcomed the move.

“If government does go ahead, we will be very pleased,” she said. “The situation is very serious and getting worse and worse.”

McCarthy could not say when the new system would come into effect, as funds still needed to come from the Finance Ministry.

About 200,000 Zimbabweans applied for asylum last year, while about the same number were deported in 2007. Figures for the number of applications granted in 2008 were not available, but only 241 Zimbabwean asylum seekers were successful between 2004 and 2006.

McCarthy also said a center for Zimbabwean asylum seekers would be opened in Pretoria. Currently, thousands are camped without proper shelter and sanitation outside government refugee offices across the country.

The Central Methodist Church, near Johannesburg’s High Court, is overcrowded with about 4,000 Zimbabwean refugees.

“The existing infrastructure is not coping,” McCarthy said.