It is being called the largest displacement of people outside of a war zone since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but a new report is dismissing claims of a 'human tsunami' of undocumented Zimbabwean migrants arriving in South Africa as an "exaggeration".
The report, 'Fact or Fiction? Examining cross-border migration into South Africa', by the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand and the Musina Legal Advice Office, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) advocating the rights of migrants, which operates on the Zimbabwean/South African border, said, "recent statements by officials exaggerated the numbers of Zimbabweans moving across the border into South Africa or already in the country."
Although the authors did not speculate on how many Zimbabweans have entered, or are entering the country, daily, it does acknowledge that "this is the first time post-apartheid South Africa has faced people fleeing from political crises and economic deprivation in one of its immediate neighbours", and its response will test the country's ability to "effectively protect the human dignity of migrants and South African citizens".
Media reports have suggested that as many as three million Zimbabweans have crossed into South Africa since the neighbouring economy began its steep decline in 2000.
Zimbabwe currently has the world's highest inflation rate of more than 7,000 percent, with unemployment of 80 percent, while UN agencies predict that more than a third of the country's population, or 4.1 million people, will experience severe food shortages in the first quarter of 2008.
The report said although "cross-border migration has generally increased in recent months ... the magnitude of these increases remain unclear", and took issue with media reports that made assertions without clarifying sources and, "most worryingly, fail to interrogate estimates against obvious baseline figures (e.g. is it plausible to suggest that almost 10 percent of Zimbabwe's estimated population has crossed illegally into South Africa within one year?)."
The "human tsunami"
The South African Independent, a Sunday newspaper, has quoted 'official' estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 undocumented Zimbabweans have been crossing into South Africa every month, and the country's leading financial daily, Business Day, has quoted police sources estimating that 6,000 to 10,000 undocumented migrants have been arriving weekly from Zimbabwe.
The weekly newspaper, The Mail & Guardian, has cited police sources at Musina, the South African town nearest the main border post for entering Zimbabwe, estimating that 3,000 undocumented migrants per day were crossing from Zimbabwe to South Africa.
Sally Peberdy, programme manager for the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP), an NGO researching regional migration issues, said the often-quoted figure of three million undocumented Zimbabweans in South Africa was overblown. "We know what it is not, but what we don't know is what it is."
The Fact or Fiction report dismissed the media's "provocative image of a Zimbabwean 'Human Tsanami'" after President Robert Mugabe imposed price controls in an attempt to reign in hyperinflation as "demograhic guesswork".
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an organisation committed to the principle that humane and orderly migration benefits migrants and society, opened a Reception and Support Centre on 31 May 2006 at Beitbridge, the Zimbabwean town nearest the main border crossing to South Africa, to receive migrants repatriated from South Africa.
Nick van der Vyver, the programme officer at IOM, told IRIN that the centre processed 16,348 people in June this year, and 20,047 in May, but in July, when the full impact of price controls was being experienced in Zimbabwe, the number of deportees from South Africa passing through the centre dropped to 15,330.
Although Van Der Vyver conceded that the number of deportees accepted by the facility could not determine the flow of undocumented Zimbabwean migrants to South Africa, the assumption was that the greater the influx of migrants, the greater the chance of arrest among the larger pool of undocumented Zimbabwean migrants there.
In the first seven months of 2007, the IOM processed 117,737 people being returned from South Africa via Beitbridge, about 40,000 more than in the last six months of 2006.
Secure or porous borders?
The report cited "considerable evidence" since December 2006 that police and army patrols had increased along the South African/Zimbabwe border, and that the security forces "have been arresting and deporting increased numbers of suspected illegal foreigners."
However, in mid-August an IRIN correspondent spent an afternoon inspecting 25km of the border fence and witnessed no patrols by either police or army, although there were numerous places where large swathes of the security fence had been removed. A local farmer said the security fence was being stolen for resale.
According to the report, a "more accurate assessment of current border management difficulties is that the South African government has never been able to control the movement of people across any of its borders."
The government has shied away from producing its own estimate of a Zimbabwean exodus, but this is not a position it has always held on undocumented migrants.
In 2000, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the then Home Affairs Minister, said at a meeting with Germany's interior minister, Otto Schily, in Berlin, that "official sources suggest figures ranging from 4 [million] to 8 million [undocumented migrants]... At grassroots level instances of xenophobia have been registered, and the possibility that such negative feelings are becoming endemic within our population."
The Human Sciences Research Council, from where Buthelezi sourced the figures, subsequently withdrew them, citing a flawed research methodolgy. In the late 1990s, SAMP and Statistics South Africa estimated that around 500,000 undocumented migrants were residing in South Africa.
During the time of both British colonialism and apartheid, South Africa's mining-based economy drew hundreds of thousands of migrants from throughout region, although on a more 'formalised' basis than has been experienced since the country's first democratic elections in 1994.
The continent's economic powerhouse has become a magnet, and few would dispute that Gauteng, South Africa's richest province, hosts nationals from all of Africa's 53 states - it is only the size of the community that varies.
Basothos, Mozambicans, Malawians and Zimbabweans are probably the largest immigrant communities, yet Somalis, although having a much smaller immigrant population of about 20,000, have borne the brunt of a fierce xenophobia: according to human rights organisations, at least 30 Somali nationals were killed in 2006 alone.
South Africa's abuse of international refugee laws
The report cited "the denial of asylum in South Africa to victims of persecution, violence and conflict" as an issue requiring redress by the South African authorities.
The number of undocumented Zimbabwean migrants has become a heated domestic political issue, with the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), calling for the establishment of refugee camps for Zimbabwe's "economic refugees", while government has "supported its denial of the need for camps by suggesting that almost none of these migrants are legitimate asylum seekers", the report said.
South Africa's Home Affairs Department has used statistical evidence in their defence, saying that only one Zimbabwean had claimed asylum at the Beitbridge border post between 1 January and 30 June 2007.
However, in 2006, according to Home Affairs, 18,973 applications for asylum were lodged by Zimbabweans - 35.4 percent of the 53,363 asylum applications made in the calendar year. There are no statistics available for asylum applications in 2004 and 2005.
"Our research suggests that the numbers of Zimbabweans formally applying for asylum may be significantly distorted by local officials' poor understanding of, and/or an unwillingness to administer the country's refugee laws. Some offcials we spoke to believed all Zimbabweans were economic migrants, or not 'real' refugees," the report commented.
Observations at the Beitbridge office by the Musina Legal Advice Office, one of the report's authors, found South African border officials denying Zimbabweans the same opportunity as other nationals to claim asylum.
"If these observations are correct, the South African government is responsible for contravening the most fundamental principle of international refugee law: non refoulment," the report said.
Non refoulment is the principle that no person should be expelled from, or refused entry, to a country, if such an act would expose them to specified forms of threat or persecution.
According to the report, "By supporting the notion that all Zimbabweans are economic refugees, or illegal immigrants, Home Affairs officials in Pretoria tacitly condone the illegal activities of their junior officials."