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Mugabe’s Weary Travelers

Author: Stephanie Hanson
January 23, 2008


These days, a bus ride from Francistown, near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, to Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, includes a surprise encounter with the Botswana police. At a checkpoint one hour into the ride, the busload disembarks and police inspect passports, in search of Zimbabwean border jumpers. The economic crisis in Zimbabwe, marked by spiraling inflation rates and empty grocery shelves, is propelling its residents across the border. They don’t always find a welcome mat next door. Some sixty thousand Zimbabweans were deported from Botswana in 2006, and over 23,000 were deported between April and November 2007. South Africa deported over 150,000 Zimbabweans in the first nine months of 2007, according to Refugees International. Though the influx strains both countries, policy changes appear unlikely.

Botswana and South Africa staunchly uphold Zimbabwe’s sovereignty and official government statements are careful not to criticize Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. “There is very little we can do,” says Mompati Sebogodi Merafhe, Botswana’s minister of foreign affairs, in an interview with “The solution to the Zimbabwe crisis must come from the Zimbabweans themselves.” Yet government officials concede the flaws in current policy. “These repatriations are more or less a vicious cycle,” says Moses M. Gaealafswe, Botswana’s chief immigration officer told “You arrest them today, you repatriate them tomorrow, next week they are here.” South Africa’s minister of home affairs has told the United Nations how difficult it is to regulate Zimbabwean immigration and expressed the need to develop new approaches (VOA). A few civil society groups pressure the South African government for policy changes, says Patrick Duplat of Refugees International, but in Botswana “civil society is practically nonexistent.”

In the absence of an overt, coordinated response to Zimbabwean migration, government bodies face many questions. What do immigration officers do when their border posts are overflowing with people? Should hospitals treat sick Zimbabweans without legal papers, or call the police in to arrest them? In South Africa, government employees who lack understanding of the country’s laws on refugees often fail to inform Zimbabweans of their right to apply for refugee status, instead sending them back across the border (PDF), researchers from Johannesburg’s Forced Migration Study Programme found. Those who do apply, however, face a backlog of applications thousands deep (NYT).

Ahead of Zimbabwe’s elections in 2008, border flows may grow. Given the reluctance of regional governments to develop a pragmatic approach to Zimbabwean immigration, any policy change may take international prodding. The African Union opened an investigation (Zimbabwe Standard) into alleged abuse of Zimbabweans in South Africa and Botswana in November 2007. Several nongovernmental organizations have suggested that both governments issue temporary residence permits, but critics say this does not address the primary reason Zimbabweans leave their country: the need for money.

A massive and sudden exodus of Zimbabweans, as undesirable as it would be, would certainly force new action. Botswana’s Gaealafswe says the government is developing a contingency plan in the event of a huge influx of people during the elections. Refugees International recommends that the Botswana and South Africa governments work together now to develop a legal framework for Zimbabwean immigrants, but in late November 2007, Gaealafswe said he knew of no plans for such a discussion.

Stephanie Hanson reported this story from Botswana.

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