By Kathleen Chaykowski
UPDATE: PASSOP said last night:
"We welcome the announcements made at the press conference earlier today. After reviewing the transcripts we believe that the Minister has not only only extended the deadline for Zimbabweans waiting for their permits but has also extended the moratorium on deportations."
Confusion about the future of Zimbabweans in South Africa deepened this week after the home affairs department suggested that those who have applied for special permits to stay in the country could be granted an additional month to finalise their papers, but avoided the word "extension".
Meanwhile, nongovernmental organisations are gearing up anxiously to receive thousands of Zimbabweans who might be deported, but officials remain tight-lipped about the scale of deportations that could follow the new deadline.
Homes affairs deputy director general Jackson McKay said last week the department would continue to issue the special permits into August, but would complete reviewing applications for them on July 31. The department had previously indicated it was on track to issue all the permits by July 31.
The government launched its Zimbabwe Documentation Project (ZDP) in September 2009, saying many Zimbabweans were in South Africa illegally and needed to apply for proper documents.
"We will conclude the adjudication of the [ZDP] applications by July 31 and finalise all outstanding matters in August," McKay said at a press conference last week. "This will allow us sufficient time to dispatch all the required permits."
If this is an extension, it is still too short, said Braam Hanekom, the director of People against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (Passop).
"August had never been mentioned before as part of permit distribution," he said. "Zimbabweans are panicking and really worried."For one Zimbabwean responding to this development on Passop's website, the department's announcement means "it's all guesswork right now".
"I went to the showground offices today to check the status of my application and we were told the offices were under construction. We were then told to leave and not given a date when we could check again."This week home affairs spokesperson Manusha Pillai told the Mail & Guardian the August deadline would allow the department to dispatch permits and enable people to complete their applications.
Passop wrote to home affairs early in July pleading for a minimum two-month extension to the ZDP deadline. "We welcome the month extension, but we are concerned it isn't enough," Hanekom said.
The apparent extension helps only those Zimbabweans who have already applied for their ZDP permits. For those who have not, and for Zimbabweans not judged to be bona fide asylum seekers, July 31 remains the deadline after which they could be deported.
McKay said last week that 275 762 Zimbabweans had applied for permits and he expected 99% of these to be approved. The department still had 2 248 applications to adjudicate.
Meanwhile, NGOs in Zimbabwe told the M&G they were preparing to receive tens of thousands of deportees from next week.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has staffed two reception and support centres that have been dormant for the past two years, said Natalia Perez, the NGO's officer in Zimbabwe. "One week from the [July 31] deadline, preparations are pretty well advanced," she said. Other IOM officials said they were bracing themselves for between 15 000 and 17 000 Zimbabwean deportees a month.
"The worst-case scenario we're catering for is 24 000 returnees a month," said the NGO's Yukiko Kumashiro.Centres in Beitbridge across the border from Musina and in Plumtree on the border with Botswana will offer hot meals, psychosocial counselling, health screening, transportation and escort services for unaccompanied minors.
"If deportations start, the migrants are very likely to go underground again, which opens them [Zimbabweans] up to all kinds of vulnerability," said Nefuso Theyise, an IOM officer in South Africa.Home affairs and the South African Police Service declined to say what deportation plans they were making for the July 31 deadline, while experts differed on what to expect.
Hanekom said the department would not be "foolish enough" to embark on mass deportation. Pillai said Zimbabweans waiting for ZDP permits should not panic after the moratorium ended because anyone waiting for an approved permit could present receipts to police who threatened arrest.
Tara Polzer, senior researcher at the forced migration studies programme at Wits University, said:
"What we're hearing from home affairs is that they aren't necessarily planning a major deportation, but they have been very tight-lipped about it."But Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, the head of the refugee and migrant rights programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, believes "deportations will begin in earnest".