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SAfrica: 230k Zimbabweans apply to be legal

Zimbabweans pass a police cordon to submit their application forms outside the Immigration offices in Johannesburg Friday, Dec. 31, 2010, in a last minute bid to have their status in South Africa legalized. Thousands of Zimbabwean residents crowded outside the offices to apply for permits before a feared wave of deportations, as an amnesty granted to illegal Zimbabwean immigrants ends Friday. Zimbabweans pass a police cordon to submit their application forms outside the Immigration offices in Johannesburg Friday, Dec. 31, 2010, in a last minute bid to have their status in South Africa legalized. Thousands of Zimbabwean residents crowded outside the offices to apply for permits before a feared wave of deportations, as an amnesty granted to illegal Zimbabwean immigrants ends Friday. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)
By Nastasya Tay
Associated Press / December 31, 2010

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JOHANNESBURG—Thousands of Zimbabwean immigrants crowded outside South African immigration offices Friday as a deadline approached for them to obtain permits or face deportation.

At one Johannesburg office, lines stretched almost twice around the block as it became clear the deadline would not be extended. Staff vowed to work through the night to process registrations.

"The large turnout of Zimbabweans in our offices since the announcement of the deadline and in the days leading up to the deadline is a consequence of a deep desire by the majority of illegal Zimbabweans living in South Africa to comply with our country's immigration laws, and lead normal lives without the constant fear of deportation," immigration Director General Mkuseli Apleni said Friday.

Apleni called the program a success, saying more than 230,000 Zimbabweans have applied to legalize their stays in South Africa since the September announcement.

As many as 3 million Zimbabweans are believed to be living and working in South Africa after fleeing entwined economic collapse and a political crisis in their homeland. South African authorities, who had allowed many to stay without even passports, announced the crackdown in September, saying that those who did not apply for legal status before Dec. 31 would have to go home.

Skah Mpunzi worked as a teacher in Zimbabwe, but has been a hairdresser in South Africa for the last five years. She waited outside a Johannesburg immigration office to submit her application Friday, clutching her documents in a plastic sleeve.

"I'm standing here so I don't get trouble from the police in January," she told The Associated Press. "I'm positive there will be trouble."

Mpunzi said she does not want to be deported because things have not changed in Zimbabwe. She said, "people just have a way of survival" there.

Zimbabweans make up the largest immigrant group in South Africa. Rights groups say legalizing Zimbabweans would ensure they pay taxes and that their children go to school so that they can grow up to contribute to the economy of their adopted country, echoing arguments in immigration debates in the United States and Europe.

In early 2009, South Africa announced Zimbabweans could travel here on a free 90-day visitor's permit and apply to do casual work during their stay. It was the end of that "special dispensation" that was announced in September, with South African officials citing improved economic and political conditions in Zimbabwe.

To qualify, applicants must prove they have been in South Africa since at least May this year. In order to apply for the work, study or business permits, Zimbabwean immigrants initially needed to present a valid Zimbabwean passport, and provide documentary proof that they had been engaging in those specific activities.

Requirements, however, were relaxed in early December, when it became evident that Zimbabwean authorities were struggling to keep up with the volume of passport applicants.

Applicants were then only required to present a receipt demonstrating they had applied for a passport. In the last three days before the deadline, requirements were relaxed even further, with immigration officials calling on Zimbabweans to apply with whatever documentation they had.

Civil society groups have criticized a lack of communication on the new requirements for adding to confusion in the application process.

Jacob van Garderen, executive director of the Pretoria-based Lawyers for Human Rights said that the short four-month timeframe has excluded too many Zimbabweans for the program to be a true success.

"We're disappointed that they haven't extended the deadline, and we expect that a significant amount of people are now vulnerable to arrest and deportation," he said.

Van Garderen said people had not procrastinated with their applications, but had struggled to get their documentation in order, especially Zimbabwean passports and birth certificates.

But immigration official Joas Phala at one Johannesburg office said staff will work late to ensure all Zimbabweans in line Friday would have their applications properly registered.

Apleni said the deadline was not going to be extended.

Local media reported the arrest of a Zimbabwean national for selling fake supporting documents near an immigration office as the only hiccup Friday.

South Africa's immigration minister says deportations of undocumented migrants will not begin until every application has been processed.

Still, Mpunzi said that South Africa should expect an influx of immigrants in the coming year as elections approach in her home country. "It's quite rough at election time in Zimbabwe," she explained, "Permits or no permits, people will still come."

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