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Deadline Nears For Zimbabweans In South Africa

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going now to South Africa, which has long been wrestling with an issue familiar to Americans: Illegal immigrants.

Migrants from neighboring Zimbabwe have poured over South Africa's border for years. Now hundreds of thousands are facing a deportation deadline. They have until Friday to apply for visas that would allow them to stay in South Africa legally. This mass deportation presents lots of problems, among them, concerns about violence. Anders Kelto reports from Cape Town.

ANDERS KELTO: In the bustling Cape Town suburb of Wynberg, the afternoon sun is beating down. Hundreds of Zimbabweans stand in a parking lot, fanning themselves as they wait to enter a makeshift government office. Food vendors peddle fruit and drinks to people who have been waiting in line for hours. Newton Zvoushe says he arrived early. But it's now 3:00 PM and he's still nowhere near the front of the line.

Mr. NEWTON ZVOUSHE: I was here since 6:00 in the morning. From 6:00 in the morning until now, no, I have done nothing.

KELTO: Like many, Zvoushe is here to apply for a work permit. He came to South Africa in 2006, fleeing Zimbabwe's increasingly repressive regime and the nation's economic collapse. Zimbabwe's inflation rate spiraled out of control and things like bread and milk became unaffordable.

Zvoushe has been working as an undocumented school janitor for three years, and he sends most of the money he makes to his family back in Zimbabwe. He worries what will happen if he isn't granted a work permit.

Mr. ZVOUSHE: I've got brothers - three young brothers who are in primary school, and a sister. They all need my support. And my parents, too. So once I am deported, all of my family will suffer.

KELTO: South Africa harbors huge numbers of immigrants, and receives more applications for asylum than any country in the world. In September, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that special protections for Zimbabwean immigrants would end on December 31st, and anyone who did not register with the government by that date could be deported.

Some human rights groups have criticized this decision. Braam Hanekom runs PASSOP an organization that advocates for Zimbabwean refugees. He says mass deportations would be catastrophic, especially for young Zimbabweans and those who are HIV positive.

Mr. BRAAM HANEKOM (PASSOP): Many people will die. Many people will die. They don't have access to the ARVs, they don't have access to the necessary nutritional intake, they don't have access to necessary medical treatment. And a large group of youngsters will also grow up uneducated because the education system is also crippled.

KELTO: There also are widespread fears of resurgent attacks against foreigners, if the government moves ahead with mass deportations. Resentment against Zimbabweans exploded in deadly violence in South Africa two years ago, fueled by anger over Zimbabweans willingness to work for less. Unemployment in South Africa is measured at 25 percent, but the actual number is believed to be closer to 40 percent.

(Soundbite of stamping paper)

KELTO: South Africa's government has tried to accommodate the huge numbers of applicants by setting up temporary visa offices. Inside this one in Wynberg, there are just three workers to process applications from more than 500 people. And more Zimbabweans are arriving every day.

Unidentified Man: Do you have asylum? Do you have a photo copy of asylum, please?

KELTO: Altogether, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans are applying for permits. But an even greater number are believed to be ignoring the government mandate. Many are scared of being deported. But some, like Morris Marima, say deportation would merely be an inconvenience.

Mr. MORRIS MARIMA: If I am deported, I'll come back, as long as I have money. You know, it's very easy crossing that border, it's like going from here to Johannesburg - as long as you've got money.

KELTO: For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto in Cape Town, South Africa.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.