Thousands of children who fled across the border to Zimbabwe during Mozambique's 17-year civil war are stranded in a stateless existence, without access to identity documents and social services in their adopted country.
Most Mozambican nationals have settled in northeastern Zimbabwe's Mashonaland Central Province along the border with Mozambique, where they have set up their own homesteads or were adopted by local families.
Martin Dinha, mayor of the provincial capital, Bindura, said during the recent launch of a child rights campaign that his office was overwhelmed by the number of people who could not obtain birth certificates.
"It is worth noting that Bindura ... being closer to the border with Mozambique, has many people who ran away from Mozambique during the war and have settled here. Many of them have not had the opportunity to get Zimbabwean citizenship and have no identity documents from their country," he commented.
Mozambique was torn by civil unrest that pitted the ruling FRELIMO against RENAMO from 1975 to 1992. Antonio Namburete, now 36, fled to Zimbabwe in the mid-1980s as a teenager but, even after the first elections were held in his homeland in 1994, preferred to remain in Muzarabani district, about 70km from the Mozambican border, where he had married and fathered two children.
"When the war ended, I crossed back to Mozambique but my family members were no longer there; even the village had been destroyed and I opted to return to this place, where the local villagers had received me well," he said.
"Mozambique brings back sad memories but, unfortunately, I sometimes feel like I don't have a home anywhere on this earth because I do not have anything to identify myself with after my Mozambican birth registration certificate got lost when our area was raided during the war," the now widowed Namburete told IRIN.
After fleeing to Zimbabwe he was employed as a herdsman by a ranching family, who gave him a piece of land on which to build a house but because his employer did him that "favour" he does not receive any wages.
His wife, also a Mozambican national, was blown up by a landmine while fetching firewood two years ago but Namburete could not get a death certificate for her. The police refused to process the papers because she did not have an identity document, and suggested he seek help from the Mozambican embassy in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, to repatriate her body to his home country.
"But how on earth could that be possible? Even officials in Mozambique would tell me that I am not from that country because there is nothing to prove it," he said. His wife was buried without police clearance, which means there is no record of her death, a situation that applies to most refugees.
Namburete's 12-year-old son cannot read or write and spends most of his time herding cattle or tending fields with his father, but sometimes earns a packet of sugar or a bottle of cooking oil working part-time in a grinding mill owned by a local businessman.
His nine-year-old daughter has been adopted by his employer's son, who works in Mount Darwin, a town 60km away, where she helps with household chores on the promise that she will go to school next year.
"It is painful that my son, and most probably his sister, will grow up just like their parents, lacking identity and with nothing meaningful to do in life. It is even more unfortunate that that will be the case just because of our inability to obtain a simple paper, something lucky people take for granted," said Namburete.
According to officials at the registration offices in Mount Darwin and Bindura, Namburete's children cannot be registered because the parents do not have identity documents.
Although there are organisations that help immigrants register, illiterate refugees like Namburete are reluctant to approach them, or cannot afford the travel expenses to reach them.
Simon Masiiwa, a village headman, told IRIN, "The situation is worrying because the failure by the Mozambicans to obtain identity particulars means that they cannot even get married legally."
Zimbabweans have been accepting
Local communities have largely accepted immigrants as part of their society, but Mozambicans are excluded from a number of social services. "Even hospitals sometimes turn them away ... despite having chosen to make Zimbabwe their country, they cannot exercise their voting rights; they are life's passengers," Masiiwa commented.
Zimbabwe's ZANU-PF party government recently announced that people of foreign origin, mostly from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, who had been mainly employed on commercial farms, would be allowed to vote, but observers have pointed out that a significant number of them would still be excluded because they lacked the required documents.
Life is difficult for people who cannot produce identification papers when confronted by militias in politically volatile Mashonaland Central Province, which is dominated by the ruling party and strangers are treated with suspicion.
Acquiring birth certificates for orphaned children of foreign origin was even more difficult, Masiiwa said, because there was no one to assist them or support their applications.
James Elder, spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Zimbabwe, described the lack of birth registration documents, particularly for children, as "a real problem", and said around 40 percent of children aged under five were not registered.
"Although systems are in place to facilitate the acquisition of birth certificates, there are too many bottlenecks, as people have to move from one department to another," he said. "This becomes quite taxing, particularly at a time when the majority of the people are operating in a challenging economic environment."
Most people in Zimbabwe are struggling to survive: inflation has topped 2,200 percent, unemployment is around 80 percent, and the aftermath of President Robert Mugabe's fast-track land reform programme, combined with successive droughts, has severely reduced food security.
In February, 21 nongovernmental organisations signed an agreement to improve the living conditions of 350,000 orphans and vulnerable children, including helping them register their birth. The initiative is being funded by United Kingdom's Department for International Development, New Zealand AID, Swedish International Development Aid and the German government.