This was underlined in January this year when government troops and police opened fire on protestors incensed by fuel hikes which effectively make the price of petrol per litre higher than any other country in the world. Hundreds were killed, maimed or detained, followed by a muzzling of media reports alleging manipulation of fuel stocks by ZANU-PF leaders. Inflation has since soared to the point where Zimbabwe is now second to Venezuela in its monthly rise in consumer prices.
The standard of living for the average Zimbabwean, already atrocious under former president Mugabe, has significantly worsened to the point where millions, (or millions more), are looking to either legal or undocumented migration as a way to survive.
There are some 250 000 overwhelmingly young, unemployed and ambitious Zimbabweans applying for emigration papers to virtually anywhere other than their domicile. Since the emigration authorities lack both the necessary machinery and the imported paper required for documentation – most has been sold off to corrupt civil servants – most of those in the queue are obliged to leave illegally. And, few are likely to return in the absence of sustainable political and economic change.
The increasing displacement of people driven by the policies of the Mnangagwa regime has huge implications for the region.
The population at the Tongogara refugee camp near the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border, has, according to reports by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials, tripled in recent months and, for the first time in its history the camp contains more people seeking asylum in Mozambique than Mozambicans seeking entry into Zimbabwe as refugees from local conflicts. As in most refugee camps, it is under unprecedented strain due to a lack of food, sanitation, housing and health services. There are reports of cholera among its population
Refugee issues associated with Zimbabwe have also had serious implications for public policy around resettlement in both Namibia and Botswana.
Namibia is notoriously hostile to Zimbabwean refugees and, again according to UNHCR sources, has refused to accept all but a small proportion who can clearly be identified as genuine political opponents of the Mnangagwa regime. Economic refugees are not welcome, at least in part because refugee-support donations from the international community to Namibia have fallen precipitously in recent years. This means that impoverished Zimbabweans on site are either sent back to their point of origin directly or via what is effectively an internment camp at Dukwe in Botswana. In either case, Namibian and Botswana hardline policies have evoked international criticism.
Refugee movement along the Zimbabwe-South Africa axis is also complicated and largely irreversible because of the porous nature of South Africa’s north and eastern borders.
The military can only deploy roughly 20 of the estimated 25 battalions needed for effective border policing which means that many of the soldiers on border patrol are lowly and unmotivated reservists. Regional policing involving joint operations between South Africa and its neighbours has a miserable record because of widespread corruption among border police, intelligence failures and lack of trust among the participating forces. The South African Development Corporation (SADC), the primary mechanism for resolving conflict in the sub-continent, has been conspicuously silent on refugee issues.
At present South Africa, which has recently seen various flare-ups in xenophobic sentiment from its own economically pressured population, is deporting an estimated 15 000 undocumented Zimbabweans per month back to their point of departure. But this is almost futile given the rate of return among the post-deportation population, and the scale of the continuous influx into the north and north-east of the country. That people are willing to swim the crocodile-infested Limpopo only to fall into the arms of human traffickers along its banks, attests to the resolve of refugees to reach South Africa.
The situation, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports this year could deteriorate to the point that parts of Limpopo and Mpumalanga could become spattered with impoverished refugee camps akin to those housing migrants in Lebanon or Southern Europe.
However, South Africa is, by international standards, seriously disorganised when it comes to refugee reception. The legal regime governing asylum and resettlement is a mass of contradictions and requires re-engineering to meet the twin demands of national interest and global justice. The Department of Home Affairs, a key government stakeholder, has very little capacity and too much corruption to take on the strain of an additional refugee population.
There are already an estimated 3.4 million Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa, most of whom remain undocumented. An influx of, say, another five hundred thousand poses enormous challenges across the board, from policing and the administration of justice to the provision of social services. South Africa is also facing its highest level of unemployment and an increased influx will fuel xenophobia and community violence as foreigners and locals contest over scarce resources.
South Africa, and the region as a whole, will need to keep an eye on the teetering Zimbabwe, as further catalysts of migration will necessarily have deep impacts on its neighbours that will require careful and coordinated management.