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No war in Zimbabwe: An account of the exodus of a nation's people
Solidarity Peace Trust (SPT)
November 2004

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Executive Summary

Zimbabweans are now the second biggest group of foreign Africans in South Africa. Yet there is little formal information available on their situation. Very few are being officially recorded as political refugees. Some Zimbabweans claim that it is hard to access asylum seeker status. It was the intention of the authors to investigate these allegations, as well as to establish other problems and issues of relevance to Zimbabweans in South Africa.

South Africa needs to brace itself for ever-greater numbers of Zimbabweans unless a lasting political solution is found to the current crisis. At both government and NGO level, there is a need to devise policies to deal humanely with the influx, and particularly to provide services on the ground. For this, more information is needed.

Method: data sources
Data for this report was collected between September 2003 and October 2004. Sources of data included: a desk study of media, human rights reports and refugee laws; more than two hundred interviews with Zimbabweans in South Africa; 7 field visits to the Johannesburg RRO; 10 field visits to places of residence; two surveys involving a further 211 Zimbabweans; interviews with key informants; 4 field visits to Musina; 3 field visits to Beitbridge.

PART ONE: Zimbabwe's biggest export: its people
Part One of the report looks at: the crisis of governance in Zimbabwe; the humanitarian crisis; the economic crisis. It examines numbers of Zimbabweans in the diaspora and the implications of this.

PART TWO: Destination: South Africa: Legal, administrative and social issues involving refugees
Part Two is an overview of South Africa's legal obligations to refugees, together with the authors' own findings relating to the Johannesburg RRO. Issues of quiet diplomacy and xenophobia are briefly raised.

PART THREE: The Revolving Door
Part Three covers the experiences of Zimbabweans themselves and the process of going into exile. This includes: crossing the border; life in South Africa; access to health care; deportation; repatriation. It also raises the issue of Zimbabwean deaths in South Africa.

There have been several studies of general refugee issues in South Africa in recent years. CASE has produced two major reports, one in 2001 and one in 2003. Both of these reports were accompanied by extensive recommendations that were very thorough and consultative. There is little to be gained by yet again reframing the good work that others have done in this regard. The National Refugee Baseline Survey: Final Report, released a year ago in November 2003 made recommendations to the South African Government, the National Departments of Home Affairs, Health and Education; also to the UNHCR and Service Providers, including NGOs and churches. Their recommendations are attached as Appendix Four to this report.

The Solidarity Peace Trust would reinforce certain of the CASE recommendations, 2003, summarised here:

  • To the Department of Home Affairs:
    • They should investigate bribery within the department.
    • They should issue ASPs that are valid for six months instead of one month
    • ASPs should be more formal and should be laminated with anti forgery marks to make their recognition by various service providers more likely.
    • Such changes should be combined with a massive campaign to promote recognition of the documents in government departments and with other service providers.

In addition the Trust recommends that:

  • There is a need to promote greater awareness and debate in South Africa, including at the level of service providers, of the nature of the crisis in Zimbabwe, the scale and type of human rights abuses that are taking place, and the policies that are needed in South Africa to deal with the numbers of Zimbabweans in their nation.

Refugee reception offices

  • The Department of Home Affairs should take action to issue greater numbers of Zimbabweans and others with ASPs each week, as the backlog is causing real hardship to many, among them victims of torture who are at real risk if they are deported.
  • The Police need to be reminded of their legal obligation to give 15 day permits to any person they pick up for deportation who states that they want to apply for asylum, particularly bearing in mind the fact that gaining an ASP can be so problematic.
  • Civil society should be monitoring access to RROs on a systematic basis. Personnel should stand incognito outside RROs and observe whether:
    • Home Affairs officials are giving out helpful information to those waiting
    • Home Affairs officials are illegally insisting on passports
    • There is brutality towards those waiting
    • Bribery is taking place

    They should further note how many people from which nations are being issued ASPs each day, and what proportion this represents of those waiting each day.

Health care

  • Further investigations into how best to provide health care to Zimbabweans who may not be accessing the public health services must be addressed. Some are not accessing it because they do not have ASPs. If the above recommendations are acted upon, then much of this problem will resolve itself.
  • Until national service providers including the Ministry of Health consistently recognise the rights of asylum seekers, refugees and their documentation, as they are required to by local and international law, there is a need to build a network of support via civil society to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees, in particular those with torture related injuries, have safe access to medical care.
  • Civil society should monitor access to medical care, particularly at hospitals, and document instances of denial of the right to services for further action.

Denial of the right to food

  • There is a need for a test case resolving the issue of whether denial of the right to food on political grounds constitutes a "threat to physical safety". Any civil society group that knows of Zimbabweans in South Africa that have reported political abuse of food, should consider taking the issue to Court.


  • The endless cycle of deportations should be reconsidered: this is an expensive and not very effective policy. In particular, urgently:
    • Very ill foreigners should not be detained for deportation
    • Independent health professionals should do an assessment of health conditions at Lindela and on the deportation trains, to facilitate formation of a policy that will prevent communication of diseases, protect the rights of the ill, and monitor deaths of deportees in state custody.
  • The UNHCR should be playing a more active role to ensure that minors, and political asylum seekers who may not have ASPs, are not being deported.
  • There should be opportunity for deportees at Lindela to put on record crimes against themselves including bribery by South African Police, SANDF, and Home Affairs officials paid for both in cash and in sex. Civil society would be in the best position to document such claims and lay charges.


  • There is a need to protect the rights of deportees on the Zimbabwean side of the border. Among those currently deported, are unaccompanied minors, victims of sexual exploitation, the very ill, and those who have no resources to return to their homes in Zimbabwe and who end up stranded. Also among those deported, may be political asylum seekers who fled Zimbabwe in the first instance for reasons of persecution.
  • In view of the fact that the Zimbabwe government is about to force through Parliament an Act that will undermine activities of human rights NGOs and churches, it is not obvious who is supposed to deal with this sensitive issue, and protect the rights of these groups of deportees once they are back in Zimbabwe.
  • If there was better screening of deportees on the South African side, these problems would be reduced in the first place.

The dead

  • Zimbabweans are dying in South Africa and are ending up as undocumented deaths in mass paupers' graves. This may create problems in the future as relatives back in Zimbabwe do not know where their dead are buried, and do not have death certificates. There is a need to facilitate ways of keeping safe, confidential records of how to contact relatives back in Zimbabwe, in the event of exiles becoming very ill or dying.

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