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SAFRICA-ZIMBABWE Oct-27-2010 (930 words) With photo. xxxi

New rules cause worries for unskilled Zimbabweans in South Africa

By Bronwen Dachs
Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- The lives of unskilled Zimbabweans who have fled economic and political hardship may become more difficult with South Africa's latest requirements to remain in the country, said priests who work with migrants.

Mariannhill Father Danisa Khumalo, who coordinates the Johannesburg Archdiocese's ministry to Zimbabwean refugees, welcomed the South African government's efforts to regularize the status of Zimbabweans in South Africa. However, he said, many Zimbabweans "are worried about getting their documents in time" to avoid deportation.

The priest told Catholic News Service he has seen people sleeping in the long lines outside Johannesburg's Home Affairs offices.

Ending its moratorium on deportations, the South African government has given Zimbabweans a deadline of Dec. 31 to submit documentation seeking permission to work and live in the country. To avoid being sent home they need to produce a passport, a letter from an employer or proof that they are studying in South Africa.

"I see this as an opportunity" that Zimbabweans "should take up and use for their benefit," Father Khumalo said in Oct. 22 responses to questions e-mailed from CNS.

Jesuit Refugee Service gave a "cautious welcome" to the new regulations after they were announced in September. In a statement, the agency said it was "pleased to see the South African government has recognized the necessity of providing assistance to vulnerable Zimbabweans" and that cross-border cooperation between the Zimbabwean and South African governments "promises a more effective and meaningful solution to migration flows between the two countries."

The Johannesburg Archdiocese is disseminating information about the new rules, Father Khumalo said, noting that its offices in the Johannesburg suburb of Braamfontein posted the Home Affairs requirements on its notice board and also reassured people that "after December, asylum permits and refugee documents will still be valid."

Some people "are suspicious that this is a trick from the South African government to get rid of undocumented Zimbabweans," Father Khumalo said. They "are waiting to see if those who have submitted their papers will get the permits."

Despite a unity government formed in Zimbabwe in February 2009 by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe, the influx of Zimbabweans into South Africa has not abated.

"Many Zimbabweans acknowledge that some change has taken place, although it's seen as window dressing by many," Father Khumalo said.

"Many people think that it is not yet OK for them to go back to Zimbabwe as there are no employment opportunities there, and salaries are still ridiculously low" -- $150 monthly for most civil servants, he said.

"Three-quarters of the people who come for assistance at our offices are unskilled, and their chances of getting jobs in Zimbabwe are slim," Father Khumalo said.

"They are not prepared to go back home because here they get the opportunity to do some (part-time) jobs, and with this they are able to sustain their families in Zimbabwe," he said.

The Forced Migration Studies Program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg estimates that between 1 million and 1.5 million Zimbabweans are living in South Africa.

About 200,000 Zimbabweans were deported in the year leading up to the April 2009 moratorium.

Sacred Heart Father Frank Gallagher, pastor of Queen of Peace Parish in Makhado, fears the new regulations will lead to a cycle of deportations and desperate efforts to return.

"Unless things change dramatically in Zimbabwe, people will do all they can to stay here, especially with Zimbabwean elections scheduled for next year and reports of intimidation," Father Gallagher said in an Oct. 25 telephone interview from Makhado, in South Africa's Limpopo province, near its border with Zimbabwe.

Most of the approximately 100 Zimbabwean men in a shelter that Father Gallagher runs are unskilled and "battle to find work" in South Africa, he said.

"They are stuck -- they can't go forward and they can't go back," he said, noting that the men, who are mostly 18-30, earn about $3 a day in short-term work they sometimes find, and they send that money home to their families.

Father Gallagher's parish distributes soup and bread to Zimbabweans who sleep on a field at the side of the town's main road that leads to Johannesburg, 400 miles to the southwest.

He also runs a home for boys who, unaccompanied by adults, crossed Zimbabwe's border into South Africa.

"If the deportations that the government is threatening to resume means that these boys are forced to go back to Zimbabwe, their education will be compromised and they will have nowhere to go," Father Gallagher said, noting that the boys have been at school in Makhado since the start of the school year in January.

Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, a member of the Solidarity Peace Trust, an ecumenical group of South Africans and Zimbabweans, said it would be "a major challenge for Home Affairs staff to complete all the work involved in producing the permits and other documents by the end of the year."

"The time involved is enormous because of the sheer numbers of people seeking documentation," he said, noting that there "seems to be tremendous confusion about what is required" among the people lining up outside Home Affairs offices in Rustenburg.

But he commended the government on its efforts to regularize the status of Zimbabweans in the country, noting in an Oct. 25 telephone interview from Rustenburg that "people want to make their stay here legal and sustainable."

"It's not as though they are here through a choice between two good situations," he said, noting that the problems in Zimbabwe are "horrendous."


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