Passports stall immigrant documentation

JOHANNESBURG -- Nearly half the 250 000 Zimbabwean immigrants who applied for permits to stay in South Africa are still waiting for passports they need to produce before they can get the South African documents, a human rights group has said. (Pictured: TOBAIWA MUDEDE . . . Zimbabwe's R

The People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (Passop) said that a survey it carried out as Zimbabweans rushed to beat the December 31 deadline to apply for permits showed that about 100 000 of those who were able to submit applications do not have passports.

As we were monitoring centres towards the end of the deadline we found people lacked Zimbabwean passports and documents," Passop official Braam Hanekom said on Wednesday, days after it emerged that Zimbabwe has temporarily frozen production of passports because of a mysterious fire at the central registry office in Harare.

Pretoria gave Zimbabweans working, engaged in business or studying in South Africa without relevant permits to do so up to last month to apply for the permits but said these would be granted on condition applicants produce valid documents to show they are citizens of Zimbabwe.

The South African home affairs department allowed immigrants to submit applications even without passports but on condition that these would be produced later once applicants received them from Harare.

But the scheme to document Zimbabwean immigrants illegally staying in South Africa appears headed for a logjam, first because of the slow pace of passport production in Harare and now the fire incident.

Harare has previously refused offers from South Africa of help to print passports in order to ensure the documentation process runs smoothly, with Zimbabwean Registrar General Tobaiwa Mudede quoted as saying that production of the travel documents was a security matter that could not be outsourced to foreign authorities.

South Africa, which until now had suspended deporting illegal immigrants from its struggling northern neighbour, has said it will resume expelling all illegal Zimbabwean immigrants once it finishes processing applications for permits in about six months time.

The Passop accused the Zimbabwean government of neglect and indifference to the plight of its citizens by failing to ensure it speeded up production of passports.

"These Zimbabweans (waiting for passports) have clearly shown that they intend on legalising their stay in South Africa, but now find themselves in limbo and at the mercy of an unscrupulous Zimbabwean government," Hanekom said.

Commenting on the reported fire at the Harare passport office, Hanekom said: "Passop is neither surprised nor amused by this latest development, as it is sadly in line with the ongoing impunity shown by the Zimbabwean government."

Zimbabwe's consul-general in South Africa Chris Mapanga was not immediately available for comment on the matter.

But official media in Harare reported today that the fire that occurred at the passport office last Friday did not extensively damage the facility and that it would be able to produce emergency travel documents while passports production was expected to resume next Monday.

At full production the passport office can only print 500 of the identity documents per day, far too little to meet the huge demand from immigrants in South Africa and elsewhere abroad as well as from other citizens inside the country.

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