The moratorium on deporting illegal Zimbabweans has quietly been lifted by the South African Department of Home Affairs, leading to an outcry from refugee rights groups.
No deportations of Zimbabweans had taken place for almost two years while Home Affairs were running the Zimbabwe Documentation Project (ZDP) to offer legal status to Zimbabweans living illegally in South Africa.
Organisations working with migrants are angry that the department has not been open about a memo that was circulated among the police, army and refugee offices on September 27 explaining that deportations would resume.
The Mail & Guardian (M&G), a South African weekly newspaper, has a copy of the directive issued by Director-General of Home Affairs Mkuseli Apleni to the defence force, police offices and Department of Home Affairs branches.
The directive says “it aims to give clarity on Zimbabwean nationals who are not presently detected”, and outlines the procedure that officers must follow when deporting immigrants.
South African Home Affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa would not answer questions about the directive, but issued a Press release this week saying illegal immigrants could not claim protection under South Africa’s laws.
“No country in the world will allow illegal immigration within its borders. This is international practice,” he said.
Mamoepa told the M&G that government had shown goodwill in attempting to regularise the status of Zimbabweans in the country and had given them a window of opportunity to hand in their fraudulent documents in return for amnesty.
Refugee rights group People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty’s Braam Hanekom said the “deportations are in direct contradiction to the recent undertakings made by Home Affairs Director-General Apleni to Parliament not to embark on deportations of Zimbabweans until the Zimbabwean Documentation Project has been completed, appeals reviewed and the minister has approved deportations”.
But the ZDP is not complete. According to a research report compiled by the African Centre for Migration Studies (ACMS), “as of October 4, 145 000 permits were dispatched of 275 762 that were received, though processing was still taking place”.
Human Rights Watch estimates that there are 1,5 million Zimbabweans in the country, although fewer than 300 000 applied for legal paperwork during the amnesty period.
ACMS senior researcher Roni Amit said the resumption of deportations was “going to create problems”.
She said refugee rights groups were angry because Home Affairs had not been transparent about resuming deportations and that media reports this week had included denials of such a directive. Amit said police who arrested Zimbabweans and sent them to deportation centres generally did not verify whether the individuals were still waiting for permits.
The directive instructs officers to check if “the suspect has a pending application” for legal status and to conduct an interview with the suspect. But Amit was not convinced by this, saying: “The verification system does not work.”
Amit said public health groups had not been given advance warning that deportations were about to start.