The announcement a couple of weeks ago that the Home Affairs department was issuing a moratorium on deportation of Zimbabwean refugees was a positive sign to those Zimbabweans languishing in the limbo of undetermined status here. The moratorium was supposed to be in place while Home Affairs figured out how to implement the distribution of temporary six month residence permits to Zimbabweans who did not have another kind of permit.

Things aren’t looking good on that front. In the border town of Musina, SAPA is reporting that police are continuing with deportations despite the Home Affairs order. One of the problems with immigration policy is that there’s too much of an incentive for border police to behave in an extortionary way, instead of focusing on enforcing actual border policy. I would not be surprised if demands for money and / or sex are going right along with the deportations that SAPA is reporting. A mere order from Home Affairs is not likely to do much without increased attention paid to the everyday practices and lives of those implementing the policy on the ground.

Closer to me in Johannesburg, UNHCR seems to have finally begun moving some of the migrants staying at the Central Methodist Church to the building in Rossetenville about which I reported two weeks ago. Still, these problems seem far from a resolution:

Godfrey Charamba, chairman of the Methodist Refugee Community, told The Zimbabwe Times Sunday that following uncertainty over their continued stay at the new places, most refugees especially economic immigrants who fled their country’s decade-long economic crisis, now had “second thoughts” about remaining in South Africa.

“This relocation issue has affected us badly,” said Charamba in an interview.

“We have not been told on what will happen to us at the expiry of the lease period in those shelters, meaning that our chances of remaining there after that three months period are very slim.”

Charamba said that most refugees had already made it known to both the church authorities, Gauteng Local Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they now wished to return to Zimbabwe.

“A team comprising UNHCR, the mayor’s office and local government officials came here last week and asked whether we wanted to be relocated locally or to be taken back to Zimbabwe,” said Charamba. “Most people said that they wanted to return home.

“In fact, more than 800 refugees have said they prefer to be repatriated and now we are waiting for that to happen, because our stay in the new shelters will be short-lived.”

Charamba, who also attended that meeting, added that besides the three-month lease at some of the shelters, rentals there were so expensive that it would be unsustainable for the refugees to remain there.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees claims that keeping Zimbabwean refugees in camps in Musina, a border town in the Limpopo province, will expose the migrants to xenophobic attacks. Many of those who already left Musina after the South African government closed down the last temporary camps there ended up seeking shelter at the Central Methodist Church in the Central Business District of Johannesburg. Last week, the church faced a suit alleging that the refugees roaming the streets around the church were driving away customers from local businesses. Gauteng province MEC Dorothy Mahlangu stated immediately that she opposed sheltering the new arrivals in the church.

So where are these people going to go? For all the electioneering going on right now, immigration is nowhere to be found on any party’s agenda.

Newspapers here have a mixed record covering the ongoing immigration crisis, which led to a surprised reaction to last year’s xenophobic riots in some South African cities. One small newspaper that has done a lot in the wake of those riots to bring more attention to the issue of immigrants and the hardship they face in many communities is the Daily Dispatch from East London. International readers may recognize the name as the former home of journalist Donald Woods who wrote a memoir about his relationship with Steve Biko. The paper is doing some of the most relevant work today on immigration, and its latest in-depth feature on the relationship between locals and new migrants from Somalia in nearby New Brighton township is definitely worth a read.