South African government says Zimbabweans residing illegally to face deportation next year

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa's government is withdrawing the special status granted to illegal Zimbabwean immigrants who fled their country's economic meltdown and political violence, a spokesman said Thursday.

Government spokesman Themba Maseko said South Africa will begin deportations after Dec. 31. The announcement brings to an end an April 2009 amnesty that allowed Zimbabweans to stay in the country without passports and visas.

"After Dec. 31, all undocumented Zimbabweans will be treated like all others and their deportation will resume," he said.

Zimbabwean and South African rights groups condemned the decision and urged the government to reconsider. They said the move is a blow to the fight for democracy in Zimbabwe.

Maseko said home affairs ministers in both countries have agreed on the move. He said the Zimbabwean government has also promised to issue identity documents to Zimbabweans, which it was previously unable to do because of economic woes.

Maseko also said Zimbabweans working, doing business or studying in South Africa will be given relevant permits. He said those who obtained South African identity books illegally will get amnesty if they return the fraudulent documents.

Daniel Molokele, international co-ordinator for Global Zimbabwe Forum, said deportations would endanger many returning Zimbabweans.

"A lot who fled that country are not keen to return because of imminent persecution," he said.

But Bishop Paul Verryn of the Methodist Church in central Johannesburg said South Africa's own immigration services were part of the problem. The notoriously inefficient department is plagued by a large backlog and has been crippled by a current strike.

Verryn said he feared police would arrest immigrants whose residence applications were pending and deport them erroneously.

"Home affairs must improve its work permit and asylum-seeking system," said Verryn, who shelters many Zimbabwean refugees in his church.

Annah Moyo, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer living in South Africa, said the decision will hurt Zimbabweans who fled political persecution.

"Most of those people have not been absorbed into the asylum-seeking process. Our people are being rejected when they apply for refugee status because South Africans think there is improvement in Zimbabwe," said Moyo.

She said there has been little improvement in Zimbabwe and many opposition supporters are being targeted for violence.

"We might see a recurrence of political violence in Zimbabwe especially with elections coming in 2011," she said.

Sipho Theys, coordinator of the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum, also said President Jacob Zuma must pressure Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to improve conditions in Zimbabwe, by allowing citizens to express political opinions and giving the media more freedom as well.

Zimbabwe was devastated by political violence that erupted after disputed election results in 2008 that returned Mugabe to power. Supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change were subjected to torture and persecution and many Zimbabweans fled to neighboring countries.

President Mugabe's party and the MDC now govern in a unity government, but Mugabe has been accused of failing to implement an agreement he signed with the MDC in 2008 to ensure political change.