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Seen But Not Counted: The Plight Of Immigrants In Zimbabwe

No end in sight to the plight of colonial-era migrants as Zimbabwe dithers to give them constitutional recognition. 

DOMBOSHAVA, Zimbabwe — Elizabeth Jairos, 22, was born in Domboshava, a farming village in the province of Mashonaland East, nearly 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. So were her parents.

But they are not recognized as Zimbabwean citizens.

“My parents were born here in Zimbabwe as children of farm migrants from Malawi, but they were never documented just like me,” Jairos told Zenger News.

She represents thousands of second and third-generation migrants in Zimbabwe whose lives are in limbo due to their statelessness.

Descendants of migrant-workers who entered Zimbabwe from neighboring countries over half a century ago remain unrecognized.

When a child turns 16 in Zimbabwe, they must acquire a national identity card. The document allows them to get lawful employment, health care services, a bank account, voting rights, among other things.

Jairos does not have an identity card. Like other migrants, she has never voted.

“My parents never managed to acquire national identity documents to prove that they are Malawian or Zimbabwean,” she said.

“Without these documents, you are no one,” she said.

The Jairos, along with many others, came to Zimbabwe (then known as Southern Rhodesia) in the 1950s. The colonial government mobilized cheap African labor from neighboring countries, mainly Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia, to work in gold mines and farms.

Consequently, today the northern part of Zimbabwe has by far the most significant number of migrant descendants.

The migrants stayed on in Zimbabwe as their countries of origin and Zimbabwe gained independence between the 1960s and 1980s.

Not even the chaotic land redistribution program of the early 2000s by former President Robert Mugabe—who aimed to repossess huge tracts of farmland from white Zimbabweans and other “foreigners” for redistribution to black Zimbabweans—could chase them away.

Approximately 300,000 people are at risk of statelessness in Zimbabwe, according to a report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Most of the surviving migrants and their descendants had no other home except here,” said Jairos.

More than 300,000 people in Zimbabwe do not have national identity cards, cannot vote, and don’t own bank accounts due to statelessness. (Kudzanai Abel Gerede)

Despite decades of working and assimilating with the locals, citizenship has remained elusive for them, despite many promises from Harare.

Zimbabwean authorities’ lack of political will to find a permanent solution is majorly the problem, experts say.

In 2001, an amendment to the old constitution required the migrants to renounce their ancestral nationality within six months of the law entering into force to gain Zimbabwean citizenship.

“However, it was impractical to do this since most migrants did not have documents proving they belonged to their ancestral lands since they were Zimbabweans by birth,” said Jairos.

Nevertheless, the passing of a new constitution in 2013 offered a glimpse of hope for them.

Section 43 of the 2013 constitution provides “that every person who was born in Zimbabwe before the publication day of the Constitution is a Zimbabwean citizen if one or both of his or her parents was a citizen of a country which became a member of Southern African Development Community in 1992, and is resident in Zimbabwe.”

However, the lack of subsidiary legislation to make the clause operational means the situation of the migrants remains unchanged.

The report also brings to the fore a dark past of the early 1980s when perceived opponents of former President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe—some of them migrants—were routinely targeted by the government. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Musa Kika, legal expert and executive director at Zimbabwe Human Rights Non-Governmental Organizations Forum, blames the situation on political leaders. He says they are not sincere in resolving the issue.

“The law is not wrong,” Kika told Zenger News. “There are no gaps in the law. It’s the attitude of the civil registry and the state that need amendment.”

“The drafters of the 2013 constitution were aware that many people in Zimbabwe were of foreign origin. They drafted that provision so that everyone gets citizenship or resident status of some sort. It’s an issue to do with the attitudes and approaches of our department of civil registries, not the law.”

Recently, Amnesty International released a report titled “We Are Like ‘Stray Animals“. It details how Zimbabwe’s nationality laws have left generations of migrant workers and their families marginalized.

The report also brings to the fore a dark past of the early 1980s when perceived opponents of former President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe—some of them migrants—were routinely targeted by the government.

“There has been little effort to deal with the issue,” Daniel Molokele, a legislator in the Zimbabwean Parliament, told Zenger News.

“But I’m not convinced that the government is committed and sincere in dealing with the issue of statelessness because of its past wrongs. It’s more of an attempt to cover up than to own up.”

Even in the wake of renewed pressure from opposition political parties and civil society organizations to recognize migrants, the Zimbabwean government has remained tight-lipped.

Efforts to get an official comment for this article were fruitless.

Known for their intricate wood carvings, more than 1,000 Makonde were eventually granted citizenship by President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta in 2017. (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Jairos has never known life outside Domboshava, but she hopes to leave someday for greener pastures.

At the age of 10, she was recruited into farm labor and denied formal education. She hopes to get a Zimbabwean passport one day and join thousands of young migrants in neighboring South Africa in search of better opportunities.

The problem of stateless migrants is not unique to Zimbabwe.

For decades, members of the Makonde community who emigrated from Mozambique to work in the foreign-owned sisal plantations on Kenya’s coast during the colonial era struggled to find recognition.

Known for their intricate wood carvings, more than 1,000 Makonde were eventually granted citizenship by President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta in 2017.

In the same year, Kenyatta recognized the land rights of the Nubian community over parts of Kibera, a sprawling slum in Nairobi.

Originally from Sudan, Nubians have lived in Kenya for more than 120 years after being conscripted into the British Army in the 1890s. As part of King’s African Rifles, they fought in World War I and World War II.

But the colonial government classified them as a tribe not native to Kenya, thus setting the stage for their statelessness that went on for more than a century.

Kibra, a constituency in Nairobi, means the “land of the forest” in Nubian. It is also the name of a 4,000-acre parcel of land that the colonial government gave the Nubians in 1917.

Out of that, Kenyatta granted them a title deed to merely 288 acres in 2017. The rest was carved away from them over the years by other Kenyan communities.

Numbering 100 000, Nubians were recognized as a Kenyan tribe for the first time during the 2009 census.

Still, they face extra scrutiny when applying for national identity cards, required of every Kenyan at 18.

(Edited by Kipchumba Some and Amrita Das. Map by Urvashi Makwana)