Johannesburg - It is unlikely that the economic crisis and protests in Zimbabwe will cause an immediate increase in migrants, US officials have said.
“We can always be surprised, and it is useful in terms of contingency planning to think the unthinkable,” director of the office of assistance for Africa in the bureau of population, refugees and migration, Margaret McKelvey, told journalists on Wednesday.
Her office was “not anticipating an immediate uptick in the outflow” of people from the country.
There had been a steady number of migrants leaving Zimbabwe over the past few years, but there could be some increase following recent unrest in the country.
Disincentives created by neighbouring countries like Botswana and SA, and the fact that many Zimbabweans knew about these already, meant the outflow might not be that big. One of these was the difficulty in lodging asylum claims.
Zimbabweans may leave
“People are lodging asylum claims, but many Zimbabweans may not have a classic refugee fear of persecution,” she said.
“Many people would make a refugee claim in order to extend their legal stay in South Africa, and I know this is a huge challenge for the South African government. There is a backlog of several hundred-thousand of such claims,” she said.
McKelvey did not rule out the possibility that more Zimbabweans would leave the country.
She used South Sudan as an example, saying more people had been leaving recently after conflict started again, than when the peace deal was signed three years ago.
She said the UN might be asked to help if things turned bad in Zimbabwe.
McKelvey announced that US President Barack Obama would chair a high-level summit on migration at the UN General Assembly in September.
On Wednesday, Zimbabweans stayed at home and businesses and many banks in the capital Harare were shut in a peaceful protest against an import ban, a cash shortage, and high unemployment.
The stay-away - billed as the biggest in a decade - was fronted by the social media movement #ThisFlag. It came after a strike by doctors, teachers and nurses after the government did not have enough money to pay their salaries in June.
There were protests at the Beitbridge border post with SA last week over Zimbabwe’s import ban on South African goods including bottled water, furniture, building materials, steel products, cereals, potato chips, and dairy products.