South Africa ended yesterday a special programme to provide visas for more than one million undocumented immigrants who fled political and economic turmoil in Zimbabwe, setting the stage for a possible mass deportation.
But a large-scale round-up of migrants looks unlikely because of the high cost for South Africa and the risk to Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe — who wants to hold elections this year — of re-admitting migrants who largely support his opponents.
The migrants also provide a steady flow of hard currency through remittances that support Zimbabwe’s shaky economy.
South African Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said yesterday immigration laws “will not target Zimbabweans.”
But Home Affairs Deputy Director General Jackie McKay told media last month: “Anyone who is found in South Africa without legal documents to remain in the country will be deported.”
South Africa allowed more than one million people from Zimbabwe to enter without documents three years ago when its destitute neighbour was swept up in political violence and its already unsteady economy was crushed by hyper inflation.
The ministry said about 275,000 Zimbabweans had filed paperwork to normalise their stay under the programme that ended July 31. Immigration experts estimate there could be as many as 2 million Zimbabweans in South Africa.
Analysts warn that populist South African appeals to expel foreigners seen as taking precious jobs could cause a backlash.
A series of attacks on foreign workers in 2008 killed 62 people and left tens of thousands homeless, damaging investor confidence in Africa’s largest economy.
“It simply costs too much money to deport people, especially when you consider that they have absolutely no disincentive to try again. Within weeks or months, most migrants are back in the country – or at least attempting to come back,” said Sisonke Msimang, the executive director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.
One of the few institutions that functions reasonably well in Zimbabwe is its education system. But graduates have few options for high-paying jobs in a country with an unemployment rate estimated by the International Monetary Fund at 80 percent.
South Africa has been a beacon for asylum seekers due to its liberal immigration laws, proximity to African trouble spots and a massive economy compared to the rest of the continent that has attracted millions seeking wealth they cannot find at home.
About one in five of the 845,800 asylum seekers registered globally in 2010 sought refuge in South Africa, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said. Most are from Zimbabwe.