The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is establishing a second reception centre in Zimbabwe to provide a 'soft landing' for undocumented Zimbabwean migrants being deported from neighbouring countries.
Last year 38,000 Zimbabweans were repatriated from Botswana to Zimbabwe. Earlier this year President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government requested the IOM to assist in setting up the country's second reception centre, in the Matabeleland town of Plumtree near the Botswana border, to assist undocumented migrants repatriated from Botswana.
The Plumtree reception centre, scheduled to open its doors at the end of 2007, is modelled on an existing facility at Beitbridge, which caters for undocumented Zimbabwean migrants being returned by South Africa.
Nick van der Vyver, programme officer for IOM's Beitbridge Reception and Support Centre, told IRIN the circumstances in Plumtree were similar to those in Beitbridge before the IOM opened their reception centre there.
"People deported back to Beitbridge often arrived destitute, always hungry and with few choices. Women would turn to sex work, while men would engage in crime to try and get money to survive," he said.
"Since we opened [the Beitbridge reception centre] on 31 May last year , we have been operating seven days a week - not one single day of closing -and only on one day was no-one deported [from South Africa]. Christmas Day people were deported; New Year's Eve they were deported; New Year's Day they were deported; any public holiday you like to mention, they were deported."
The rapidly rising deportations from South Africa have closely mirrored Zimbabwe's deteriorating economic circumstances: an official inflation rate that has reached more than 7,000 percent - the highest in the world - and unemployment at 80 percent.
A critical lack of forex has made fuel, spare parts and medical supplies all but unobtainable, and has also brought electricity, water and other municipal services to a near standstill. A severe drought has compounded the country's hardship.
In 2003, 55,753 Zimbabweans were deported. In the first seven months of 2007, the IOM processed 117,737 people from South Africa at Beitbridge, about 40,000 more than in the last six months of 2006.
"Last year there was something like 11,400 people a month deported, and the average for this year is somewhere around 17,000 a month," Van der Vyver said.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) issued a joint report in June this year, predicting that "people at risk [of severe food shortages] will peak at 4.1 million in the first three months of 2008 - more than a third of Zimbabwe's estimated population of 11.8 million."
The Plumtree facility will open at a time of high food insecurity in Zimbabwe, but Van der Vyver pointed out that the government's request that they open the Plumtree facility was made before the food security report was issued.
A Zimbabwean exodus?
According to unofficial estimates, since 2000 about a quarter of the population, or three million people, have left the country for neighbouring states such as South Africa and Botswana, or further afield for Britain and the United States. Analysts believe acute food shortages could further contribute to a spike in the flight from Zimbabwe.
Van der Vyver conceded that the number of deportations to Beitbridge provided no correlation for the claimed Zimbabwean exodus, or even an exact figure for deportees. "This is not discreet individuals, it is the number of bodies deported - so for anyone who has been deported two or three times, they turn up here, [Beitbridge] two or three times."
Like the Beitbridge reception centre, the Plumtree facility is designed to provide deportees with a soft landing. After going through the repatriation process by the Zimbabwean police and immigration officials, each person is provided with a WFP food pack containing 10kg of maizemeal and 1kg of beans, and given the option of free transport back to their home, regardless of where that may be in Zimbabwe.
Medical attention is provided free of charge for those requiring it, including counselling services for the victims of rape or violence.
"People are less likely to go straight back across the border on the same day if they have got some options," Van der Vyver said. "Even so, 35 percent just leave the centre immediately as soon as they are processed. The obvious assumption is that they go straight back to South Africa."
A 2006 IOM survey found that four out of five people arriving at the Beitbridge reception centre were male and the average age was about 24, but from initial data collected in another survey in July 2007, Van der Vyver expected the average age of deportees to drop to about 21, while the gender split would remain constant.
Botswana a road to South Africa
Eugene Campbell, an associate professor of population studies at the University of Botswana in the capital, Gaberone, told IRIN that the increase of illegal migrants from Zimbabwe had caught Botswana off-guard.
Botswana allows Zimbabwean passport holders, or other visitors, to reside in the country for up to 90 days per year, with the only prerequiste being that the holder has a valid passport. Campbell believes Botswana is used more as a conduit to South Africa, than as a destination.
"Quite a number of Zimbabweans who come to Botswana have no plans to stay here, and their final objective is South Africa. But they maybe stay here a little while to get a bit of money, or maybe increase their skills, and then move on," he commented.
"The ultimate destination is South Africa: the job market is bigger, the consumer market is much bigger and, by comparison, Botswana is a very small economy."
The bilateral migration agreement between the Zimbabwean and Botswana governments was being tested, Campbell said, as "it is obvious from the volumes that Zimbabweans buy petrol [in Botswana] for commercial use and not for domestic consumption, but no permit is required and the eyes [of officialdom] are just closed to the realities. It helps the situation [in Zimbabwe]; but this [also] helps to encourage the influx of migrants from Zimbabwe."
A consequence of Zimbabwe's seven-year economic recession has been acute shortages of fuel. A visit by IRIN to Ramokgwebane, the nearest town in Botswana to Plumtree, found long queues of Zimbabweans at the petrol station, filling containers with fuel.
One customer, who declined to be identified, told IRIN the Zimbabwean authorities allowed any amount of petrol to be brought into Zimbabwe by private operators, as long as fixed fee of 150 pula (US$25), the Botswana currency, was paid to them.
Campbell said the most disconcerting aspect of illegal immigration into Botswana was the palpable rise in xenophobia, even among university students - one of the most educated sectors of society.
"Just making reference to Zimbabwe in class during teaching generally brings a negative reaction and questions as to why Zimbabweans are here," he told IRIN.
"But the paradox is that there is such a close link between Botswana and Zimbabwe because of the relationship between the Kalangas in the north of Botswana, and Zimbabwe." The Kalanga cultural group reside on both sides of the Zimbabwe/Botswana border.