Maxwell Zimbume, 37, left his job at a beverage company in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, at the height of the country’s economic crisis in late 2008. His salary was not being paid regularly and had become almost worthless due to hyperinflation. Like hundreds of thousands of other Zimbabweans, he decided to try his luck in neighbouring South Africa.
After failing to obtain a passport at the Registrar General’s office, where officials demanded hefty bribes, Zimbume slipped into South Africa without one. He found work teaching information technology at private colleges in Pretoria and Johannesburg, and earned enough for his wife and two children to join him. His wife, a trained bookkeeper, found a job at a supermarket as a cashier.
South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs declared a moratorium on deportations of undocumented Zimbabwean migrants in 2009, and later gave them the opportunity to regularize their stay by applying for work and study permits through the Zimbabwe Documentation Project (ZDP), but neither Zimbume nor his wife applied. Because they had entered the country without passports, they did not think they were eligible, and suspected that the ZDP was a way of trapping undocumented migrants.
About 276,000 Zimbabweans applied for work, business and study permits under the ZDP, according to South Africa’s Home Affairs Department - a fraction of the 1 to 1.5 million Zimbabwean migrants that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated were living in the country.
As the ZDP project concluded, South Africa lifted the moratorium on deportations in October 2011. Since then, IOM says it has assisted 50,635 returnees - an average of 2,600 deportees per month - at the Beitbridge Reception and Support Centre at South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe.
The figure, says the organisation’s acting chief of mission in Zimbabwe, Natalia Perez, is “only a reflection of returnees who have opted for IOM assistance, and not necessarily the total number of returnees from South Africa since the resumption of deportations”.
No work at home
One night in April 2012, police officers raided the house where Zimbume and his family were living.
They were detained for two days at the local police station before being transferred to Lindela Repatriation Centre outside Johannesburg, the main departure point for undocumented foreign nationals awaiting deportation. Finally, they were loaded into a truck with scores other Zimbabweans and taken to the border.
They left behind all of their households goods, arriving in Zimbabwe with only a few clothes and a little money.
“Since our deportation, my wife and I have been trying to find jobs, but all the companies we have approached say they are not recruiting because they are still struggling. We have been living from hand to mouth from the time we returned,” Zimbume told IRIN.
Zimbume is among thousands of deportees, among them skilled workers, who are struggling to restart their lives in an economy that has not recovered enough to accommodate them.
“There are no livelihood opportunities for most of the deportees. There is a groundswell of unemployment that has been worsened by the deportations, pushing poverty levels in Zimbabwe up,” Innocent Makwiramiti, an economist and former chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, told IRIN.
Another economist, Eric Bloch, said even the informal sector was “overcrowded”.
“The informal sector is also a victim of a poorly performing economy and cannot be expected to absorb the returnees who are inflating the number of unemployed people [estimated at more than 80 percent]. There are only a few exceptional cases who are getting employed because their skills are in short supply,” Bloch told IRIN.
Vimbiso Mhara, 25, a polytechnic graduate who was deported from South Africa in November 2012, is also struggling to earn a living. She left behind a job as a hairdresser in downtown Johannesburg. She lost her passport and educational and professional certificates when she was deported.
“There are too many hairdressers in Harare now. Even though my job in Johannesburg enabled me to get by - and now and then send money back home for my child’s upkeep - I had not managed to make savings by the time I was deported, so I cannot start my own business,” Mhara told IRIN.
In January, she borrowed money from a friend to travel to Mozambique and buy used clothes for resale, bribing immigration officials along the way because she had no travel documents. But competition in the informal used clothes trade is so stiff that she lost money and is still trying to repay the debt.
“I am now back at zero and can hardly afford food for my child,” said Mhara, who is living with an aunt.
She called for the establishment of a government unit to assist deportees and help them find jobs that would complement the humanitarian interventions of organizations like IOM, which provides food, medical care and free transport home to returnees coming through the reception centre at Beitbridge.
IOM also monitors migrants with protection and medical needs after they have been transported to their homes. According to Perez, vulnerable migrants - such as minors, the mentally challenged and the terminally ill - are linked to organizations and government departments in their home areas that can help them with health, documentation or legal challenges.
Perez said they also collaborate with the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF), the Registrar General’s office and police to help migrants who have lost property or identity documents during deportation. “A number of migrants have reported leaving their properties in South Africa, and IOM has advised on how to facilitate such properties being brought to Zimbabwe, through linking them with relatives and friends who have remained in South Africa,” said Perez.
Mhara said several friends with whom she was deported have returned to South Africa by bribing officials at the border.
“A lot of people who were deported are going back to South Africa because life here is unbearable, and I am thinking of doing the same,” she said.
Last month, Zimbabwe’s home affairs ministry officially requested that its South African counterpart postpone further deportations. Home Affairs Co-Minister Theresa Makone told IRIN that they have yet to receive a response.
“Our position as a government is that the deportations should be done in a humane manner and should ensure that there is no extreme suffering of deportees,” she said.
Makone promised that her ministry would help needy returnees acquire documents to enable them to travel to other countries, but added that the South African government should consider reopening the ZDP as an alternative to deporting Zimbabweans.
Arnold Sululu, a member of Zimbabwe’s parliament who sits in the home affairs and defence committee, told IRIN: “While South Africa has legitimate reasons to deport undocumented Zimbabweans, the problem is that a significant number among them are leaving their jobs to come home and face severe unemployment and no livelihood opportunities.”