Zimbabwean Refugees in South Africa

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Post-Apartheid South Africa has been a beacon of hope to the entire African continent. After its democratic elections in 1994, South Africans were optimistic that life would be better and more equal in every way. Many Africans used South Africa as a sign of better times to come and when these hopes weren’t realized in their own countries, an influx of immigrants appeared at South Africa’s borders. These newcomers arrived for a variety of reasons, many were escaping violence and torture in their homelands while others were ‘economic refugees’ who were seeking employment in South Africa’s growing economy. I will describe the national immigration policy in South Africa as well as focus on Zimbabweans, who make up the majority of foreigners in the country. I will also explain the political upheavals in Zimbabwe that resulted in the fleeing of its citizens and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) attempts to provide assistance. Lastly, I will make clear the national opinion of South Africans towards immigrants and the changes that need to be made for a safer environment.

Immigration Policy in South Africa
South Africa was not always a place of refuge for the economically and socially repressed. The apartheid monitored and hindered all movement of its black population and therefore was not very welcoming to Africans from elsewhere. Between 1913 and 1986, black people could only enter South Africa illegally or as contract workers as they were not allowed to apply for temporary or permanent resident permits (Maharaj, 4). It makes sense that once South Africa’s borders became more open Africans would enter to pursue a better life. Today, the legal and policy framework in South Africa is favorable to documented immigrants of all kind. Basic rights to life, dignity, equality before law, administrative justice, basic education, basic health care and labor rights are allotted to all citizens including documented and undocumented non-citizens. Select non-citizens are entitled to social grants, public housing, and other state support, however very few actually receive this aid (Popular Movements in and to South Africa). Refugees and asylum-seekers in South Africa have freedom of movement, the right to work and the right to avail themselves of basic social services. The 1998 Refugees Act created a “policy of self-settlement and self-sufficiency for asylum seekers and refugees”, including the right to work and the right to access health care and education services (Popular Movements in and to South Africa). Another important legislation is the 2002 Immigration Act which enabled permits for skilled migrants, students and tourists. It also outlines the regulation of the arrest and deportation of undocumented migrants. However, it does not allow permits to be provided for job seekers. According to Polzer’s assessment, South Africa’s legal framework is “among the most expansive and progressive in the world” (Popular Movements in and to South Africa).

Zimbabweans in South Africa
Tara Polzer, a Senior Researcher for the Forced migration Studies Programme, has presented data that shows that international border migration is not as numerous as many South African citizens believe. There have been estimates ranging from 1-8 million immigrants which have be largely exaggerated. (The originations of these inaccuracies become clearer when we consider the overwhelmingly negative national opinion towards these immigrants). In reality, approximately 47, 596 refugees have been recognized from 1994 to the end of 2009 (Popular Movements in and to South Africa). The overall foreign population of both documented and undocumented immigrants is said to be between 1.6 and 2 million. Zimbabweans make up the largest percent of that group with between 1 and 1.5 million Zimbabweans currently in SA (Popular Movements in and to South Africa). There are a variety of reasons why so many Zimbabweans are leaving their homeland including...
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