Southern African countries are battling to respond appropriately to an influx of Zimbabwean migrants fleeing the economic circumstances in that country, a study has found.
Zimbabwean migration blurred the line between refugees and economic migrants, according to a report by the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand. The report was summarised in a statement released on Monday.
The study looked into the official responses to Zimbabwean migration in Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique and found that they failed to take this distinction into account.
"They [Zimbabwean migrants] can be termed "forced humanitarian migrants" who move for the purpose of their and their dependants' basic survival. Currently only recognised refugees and asylum seekers qualify for humanitarian assistance and legal protection from a host State," the report found.
To get protection from the host State, most countries in the region, except South Africa, required asylum seekers to live in isolated camps preventing them from travelling back and forth from their home country.
"This makes it impossible for Zimbabweans to fulfil their main need: to send money and goods to their families."
As a result most Zimbabweans failed to apply for asylum and moved between countries as labourers, shoppers, visitors and traders.
The needs of undocumented Zimbabweans, therefore, remained unmet. Their lives "remain precarious" as they lived in host countries earning low incomes which barely covered their expenses.
Deporting them showed a lack of protection from the crisis they sought to escape.
"In Malawi, Zambia and Botswana, the asylum system is open to Zimbabweans but very few have made use of it. Mozambique, however, has refused refugee status to Zimbabweans who applied for it.
"Although all four countries criminalise unlawful entry, unlawful work and overstaying of permits by foreigners and enforce this through deportation and other means, Botswana regularly deports particularly large numbers of Zimbabweans. Mozambique and Zambia also target suspected Zimbabwean female sex workers for deportation."
Researcher Monica Kiwanuka noted that a lack of a single regional strategy or legal instrument to respond to Zimbabwean "livelihood seeking migration" worsened the plight of vulnerable Zimbabweans.