Undocumented Zimbabwean migrants were given until 31 December 2010 to regularize their stay in South Africa, but this has been extended to 31 March, and problems with issuing passports by the Zimbabwean authorities could delay the process even further.
"There will be no deportations until the end of March," said Ricky Naidoo, spokesman for the South African Department of Home Affairs.
In September 2010 South Africa announced a moratorium on deporting Zimbabweans and said it would allow migrants until 31 December to regularize their stay by applying for work, business or study permits.
The lull in deportations will give the department time to process more than 275,000 applications for permits received from Zimbabwean migrants. "We are trying our best to complete the adjudication process in the next few weeks," Naidoo said.
The South African government relaxed its requirements as the 31 December deadline approached and now awaits a variety of outstanding documents, including passports, to process the applications.
Zimbabwean migrant rights organizations in South Africa, such as the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF), and People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), expressed their appreciation.
"They [the South African government] even accepted applications with just birth certificates and, in some instances, not even that," said Braam Hanekom of PASSOP.
The two NGOs are helping migrants who have applied for permits to obtain the required documents. The biggest problem was getting a Zimbabwean passport.
''Only about a sixth of the estimated Zimbabwean irregular migrant population applied for legal status''
Earlier this week, the Zimbabwean registrar general's office indefinitely suspended the production of passports, temporary travelling documents, and other documents such as national identity cards and birth certificates, after saying an electrical fault had affected its database in the capital, Harare.
ZEF's Gabriel Shumba estimated that at least 100,000 applications for South African permits had been submitted without passports.
Naidoo said South Africa had offered to help the Zimbabwean government issue the passports, but refused to comment on whether the offer had been accepted. So far, 42,779 applications had been finalized and approved, 10,166 were awaiting review, and 222,817 were awaiting adjudication.
The Zimbabwean daily newspaper, The Herald, which supports the ruling-ZANU-PF party, on 7 January quoted Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede as saying that they would start issuing passports again on 10 January.
"But will that help? They have a tremendous backlog," Shumba noted. Thousands of Zimbabweans who went home to obtain identity documents have been left stranded.
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, head of the refugee and migrant programme at Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), a South African organization, told IRIN that the Zimbabwean authorities had been issuing 500 passports a day before they suspended production.
The price of not applying
Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean migrants could face deportation from South Africa, "as only about a sixth of the estimated Zimbabwean irregular migrant population applied for legal status," the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement.
"There are an estimated 1.5 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, many of whom migrated as a result of the social and economic unrest in Zimbabwe in recent years."
The organization has reception centres for refugees at the Beitbridge border crossing from Zimbabwe to South Africa and in Plumtree, the main border crossing between Zimbabwe and Botswana, and is on standby to provide free transportation to deportees. With support from local and international bodies, IOM has prepositioned non-food items including tents and blankets.
ZEF's Shumba said inadequate publicity about the regularization process and lack of information on the requirements had deterred many Zimbabweans from applying.
Employers had also often been reluctant to provide letters of employment for fear of persecution. "The home affairs [department] assured these employers that there will be no action taken against them a bit too late," Shumba said.
"Most Zimbabwean migrants work part-time, it was difficult for them to establish full-time employment," Hanekom noted.
Nevertheless, Zimbabweans migrants could still apply for asylum, he said. "The application will provide them a temporary asylum seeker’s status until their interview to establish whether they qualify - this can take up to two years."
He noted that asylum applications by Zimbabweans had a dismal record, "95 percent of them get rejected, but it can still get you some time."
In the past 10 years, as hyperinflation, and social and economic problems have rocked Zimbabwe, more and more Zimbabweans have sought refuge in neighbouring South Africa, the most economically advanced country in the region.