About 1 300 migrants, mostly from Zimbabwe, have called the tented camp set on a rugby field home for nearly a year, worried that if they if they go elsewhere, they may fall victim to the ethnic violence that has claimed at least 60 lives in the past few years.
South Africa has become a haven for migrants from across Africa due to its liberal immigration policies, with hundreds of thousands from neighbouring Zimbabwe crossing the border in 2008 when its economy was crushed by hyperinflation.
The amnesty for visa-free crossing into South Africa granted to the Zimbabweans will expire at the end of this year, alarming immigrants who face mass deportations, increased exploitation by employers and a possible renewal of ethnic violence.
“I have fear. That’s why I decided to go back home,” Makoma, 21, told Reuters as tents donated by the United Nations were dismantled around her in the rural town of De Doorns, about 150 km north of Cape Town.
“It’s not easy to go to the location where the people are saying: you can’t come here. We still fear that there may be violence in the township,” Makoma said as her two-year-old daughter milled around the family’s meagre, bundled possessions.
At the De Doorns camp, the Zimbabweans facing an uncertain future have left behind rotting vegetables, empty food tins and a lattice of sandy footpaths formed between the barren patches where tents once stood.
The tensions remain that caused a wave of xenophobic attacks in 2008, which displaced tens of thousands and left 62 dead. Impoverished locals still blame immigrants for taking scarce jobs in the country with 25% unemployment, threatening violence unless they leave.
There are no definitive figures on how many Zimbabweans are in South Africa, although the International Organisation for Migration estimates the figure at between 1, 5 – 2 million.
In places such as the agricultural community around the De Doorns camp, Zimbabweans take to the fields for grape picking season, offering farmers cheap labour off the books.
Even as the last 269 people were departing the camp, about 100 more Zimbabweans trickled in hoping to find work.
Far away from the camp, Zimbabweans have also been flocking to offices for the Ministry of Home Affairs in major cities, trying to obtain the documents that will make their stay legal.
The government has said it expects to provide paperwork for all Zimbabweans by the end of year deadline, but if the processing continues at its present rate, more than one million will become illegal when 2011 starts.
Queues of immigrants stretching hundreds of metres long have become commonplace at the Home Affairs office in Johannesburg. The government has threatened a mass deportation for those who do not receive the appropriate papers.
“They are short of telling us to leave. I think they feel there are too many of us. This is their way of trying to catch us out and send us back,” said Zimbabwean Mantombi Mafu.
Experts are not sure what will happen when the year ends and South Africa is faced with the mass of Zimbabweans who do not have proper papers to stay.
“I would guess that the threat of deportation is there, which will only encourage corruption and illegality around documentation,” said Loren Landau, director, Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Zimbabwe has cooperated with South Africa to supply documents. It would like to see its skilled workers return but would also like to see a large number of migrants remaining in South Africa to send money back home to support the struggling Zimbabwe economy.
Back at the De Doorns camp, few options seemed appealing.
“This is bad, very bad. Where can I go, what must I do now?” a man who have his name as Mr Majoni asked. — Reuters.