(Johannesburg, June 19, 2008) – The South African government should recognize that political repression and economic deprivation have forced Zimbabweans to flee their country and immediately stop deporting them, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch called on the government to grant Zimbabweans in South Africa temporary status and work rights.
“South Africa faces a stark choice: it can break international law by deporting asylum seekers and ignore the harsh reality faced by hundreds of thousands of other Zimbabweans on its territory, or it can grant them temporary status and the right to work,” said Gerry Simpson, author of the report and refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Without fail, Zimbabweans in South Africa spoke of the utter desperation they felt back home. Most said they had no option but to turn to their South African neighbors for help to survive, yet Pretoria’s response is to call them economic migrants and deport hundreds of thousands.”
The recent arrival in South Africa of Zimbabweans fleeing political violence is only the latest wave of forced migration that includes tens of thousands of refugees who escaped mass forced evictions in 2005. Hundreds of thousands more left to escape economic deprivation and systematic violation of core social and economic rights caused by President Robert Mugabe’s destruction of the Zimbabwean economy during the past three years.
Human Rights Watch’s “Neighbors in Need” presents the accounts of refugees in South Africa whose lives were ruined by the Zimbabwean government’s politically motivated campaign of mass forced evictions in 2005, when it bulldozed the homes of 700,000 people and destroyed their livelihoods. Possibly tens of thousands of these people in South Africa have yet to be recognized as refugees.
Because of South Africa’s dysfunctional asylum system, many asylum seekers’ claims are not examined adequately and others are not able to lodge their claims at all. Because its deportation practices are also arbitrary and haphazard, many of the tens of thousands of Zimbabweans registered as asylum seekers in South Africa are at risk of refoulement, the forcible return to persecution in Zimbabwe, a fundamental breach of international refugee law. As a party to the refugee convention, South Africa is bound by the principle of non-refoulement, and may not send people back to face persecution.
“The surest way for the government to end its violation of international refugee law is to end the deportation of all Zimbabweans, including those fleeing the current violence,” said Simpson. “South Africa should adopt a comprehensive policy that temporarily grants them the right to remain and work.”
The report says that regularizing the status of Zimbabweans would also help to protect them against exploitation and violence in South Africa. Providing temporary status would also unburden South Africa’s asylum system, now clogged with thousands of Zimbabwean claims. Work authorization would encourage Zimbabweans to fend for themselves and support their desperate families at home. Ensuring that Zimbabweans earn the minimum wage would also help South Africans to compete fairly with Zimbabwean for jobs, thus lessening the resentments that ignite xenophobic violence.
“Neighbors in Need” also presents the individual stories of Zimbabweans driven out of their country by the appalling conditions caused by Mugabe’s destructive economic policies. Zimbabwe has the world’s highest rate of inflation (100,000 percent); 83 percent of its people live in poverty, 80 percent are unemployed, and 4.1 million depend on food assistance, which Mugabe’s operatives withhold or manipulate for political gain. Life expectancy for women fell from 56 years in 1978 to 34 today; 66 percent of the 350,000 Zimbabweans in need of lifesaving HIV/AIDS drugs cannot access them.
Most Zimbabweans enter and remain in South Africa without documents and therefore have no right to work and only limited rights and access to help such as health care. Many, such as people living with HIV/AIDS, children, and the elderly, are particularly vulnerable and often face serious obstacles in finding urgently needed assistance.
“Zimbabweans arrive in South Africa destitute and vulnerable and so they remain,” said Simpson. “They live in constant fear that the police will arrest and deport them, that employers will exploit them, and that people on the street will attack them.”
Human Rights Watch said that by temporarily granting status to Zimbabweans, the South African government will send a clear message to its citizens that those attacking foreigners will be held accountable and that foreigners should not be seen as easy targets.
Human Rights Watch also urges South Africa to recognize that the Zimbabweans’ presence underlines a failure of foreign policy – the failure to use South Africa’s leverage to effectively address the brutal human rights violations and failed economic policies that have caused their flight – and calls on South Africa to end its failed and discredited “quiet diplomacy” approach toward Mugabe.
“The South African government needs a more effective strategy to promote human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe itself,” said Simpson. “This is not an alternative to regularizing the status of Zimbabweans in South Africa. It should simultaneously address the cause of forced displacement in Zimbabwe while attending to the needs of its Zimbabwean neighbors in South Africa.”