After months of rumour and speculation, South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs appears to have quietly lifted a moratorium on deportations of undocumented Zimbabweans who did not apply for legal status through the Zimbabwe Documentation Process (ZDP).
The move contradicts recent assurances from the director-general of home affairs, Mkuseli Apleni, to parliament that deportations would not resume until the ZDP was completed and Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma had pronounced the end of the special dispensation allowing Zimbabweans to enter and remain in the country without documents.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 1-1.5 million Zimbabwean migrants are living in South Africa, but only 275,000 Zimbabweans had applied to be regularized through the ZDP by the 31 December 2010 deadline and the department has so far only issued permits to just over half of them.
Earlier this week, media outlets in Zimbabwe quoted a senior immigration official based at Beitbridge, Zimbabwe’s border with South Africa, saying that South Africa’s Home Affairs Department had notified them of plans to resume deportations “with immediate effect”.
Vincent Houver, chief of mission for IOM in Zimbabwe, which mans a reception support centre for returning migrants at Beitbridge, told IRIN his organization had received a similar notice. “All we know for now is that immigration authorities from both countries (South Africa and Zimbabwe) have met to discuss the modalities under which forced removals may resume,” he told IRIN in an email.
Meanwhile, police appear to be acting on an internal directive sent by director-general of home affairs Apleni on 27 September (IRIN has a copy), instructing the police service, as well as the defence force and home affairs offices to start deporting undocumented Zimbabwean nationals.
"This is not honest, the way they’ve done it," said Braam Hanekom of People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), a Cape Town-based refugee rights NGO. "We've had a lot of text messages from people who've been arrested, mainly in Johannesburg, since last week."
|We've worked very hard to get Zimbabweans to trust the NGOs and work with Home Affairs. If they're not being open and transparent with us then how do they expect us to engage in an open and transparent way?|
Several other NGOs reported that Zimbabweans had been picked up by police, mainly in Johannesburg, and were being detained at police stations.
"People are being arrested and police are accepting bribes and being bullies in our view," said Selvan Chetty of the Solidarity Peace Trust. "Often relatives don't know where they are because their cell phones are taken away."
"We’ve worked very hard to get Zimbabweans to trust the NGOs and work with Home Affairs," he added. "If they’re not being open and transparent with us then how do they expect us to engage in an open and transparent way?"
The directive from Apleni notes that deportations should only be done after verifying that the suspect has not applied for asylum or any other permits. However, Richard Rams, a Zimbabwean migrant living in an abandoned building in Johannesburg's inner city, told IRIN that five fellow residents of the building who were picked up by police last week and taken to the city's Central Police Station, are facing deportation despite three of them being documented.
"Two of them had asylum papers and one had a passport with a permit in it, but not on them," he told IRIN. "We tried to take [their papers] to them, but they wouldn't let us give them."
According to Rams, after two days at the police station, the five men were transported 40km outside Johannesburg to Lindela Repatriation Centre, the main departure point for undocumented foreign nationals awaiting deportation.
No deportations yet
Responding to questions about the lifting of the moratorium on deportations of Zimbabweans at a media briefing on 6 October, Home Affairs Minister Dlamini Zuma said: "The moratorium applied to specific people who entered South Africa at a specific time. There is no moratorium for Zimbabweans who come into South Africa today and break our immigration law... If you break our laws, we will arrest you."
Kaajal Ramjathan-Koogh, who heads the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, said that arrests and detentions of Zimbabweans had been taking place for several months already, but that although some were facing criminal charges for being in the country illegally, so far none had been deported.
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Mohamed Hassan, who works for IOM in the border town of Musina, confirmed that "nobody has been deported as of yet".
"We’d advocate that should deportations happen, they happen in a humane way and respecting the human rights of those affected, and we’ve been given assurances that they will adhere to minimum human rights standards," he said.
Before the moratorium came into effect in April 2009, South Africa was deporting Zimbabweans who had entered the country illegally at a rate of about 200,000 a year and refugee rights organizations regularly complained about migrants suffering human rights abuses at the hands of police and during detention at Lindela.