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SOUTH Africa has announced tough changes to its immigration regulations which have left many among the millions of Zimbabweans living there anxious and feeling "specifically targeted".

Pretoria's new home affairs minister, Malusi Gigaba, confirmed the changes which took effect on Monday this week.

Some 250,000 Zimbabweans acquired work and residency permits under a special dispensation granted by South Africa. But these are expected to expire this year, raising the prospect of mass deportations.

Unofficial estimates suggest as many as three million Zimbabweans now live in South Africa, most of them economic refugees who massed across the Limpopo in the last decade to escape a biting economic crisis back home.

And even more are now beating the well-trodden trek down South in a development confirmed by Zimbabwe's registrar general, Tobaiwa Mudede, who recently said his department was struggling to cope with a huge spike in the demand for passports.

"There is a high demand for passports in Zimbabwe as people are leaving to escape the economic crisis the country is facing," Mudede told a Parliamentary committee early this month.

However, the migrants will find now it tougher to find work and settle in South Africa under changes announced by Gigaba.

To begin with, those seeking to apply for asylum must now present themselves at the border where they would be given an asylum transit visa after which they must approach the South African home affairs within five days, failing which they risk arrest and deportation.

Most Zimbabweans travel to South Africa under limited stay permits and go on to find work after which they apply for work permits and settle in the country. They would then simply pay overstaying fines, return home and visit their families in Zimbabwe or simply cross the border illegally.

But under the changes those who overstay their permits will no longer be fined. They will be "declared as undesirable" and banned for between anything up to five years. Work permit applications will also now have to be made in countries of origin.

SA-based political refugee, Gift Nhidza said the new regulations would affect Zimbabweans more than other nationalities.

"These laws seem to be targeted at us (Zimbabweans) because we are the ones who come to South Africa for various reasons. It does not make sense for a person running from being killed by the Zimbabwean government to pass through the border. There are many CIOs at the border, that's why many use the bush. South Africa is trying to stop an influx of Zimbabweans coming to South Africa. These laws will make it difficult for Zimbabweans to go to Zimbabwe to apply for passports. I am foreseeing more Zimbabwean illegal immigrants," he said.

Meanwhile Gigaba said a decision had yet to be made on Zimbabweans in South Africa with residency documents acquired through the special dispensation.

"The permits, now called visas, which they were granted, expire this year and we now need to decide on what shall happen going forward. We are in the process of discussion," he said in Pretoria. In that regard, your friends [Zimbabweans] will have to bear with me. I have been in my new job for three days and I could not have been briefed about everything," Gigaba told a Sapa reporter.

He said "a lot of thinking" needed to go into the deliberations before government announced its stance on immigrants from Zimbabwe.

Work permits issued under the special dispensation will expire, starting this year. On several occasions, the home affairs department has said it will clarify the matter.

The department's figures indicate that almost 250,000 people received the permits under the Zimbabwe Document Project.
In March, then home affairs minister Naledi Pandor said permit holders would be expected to re-apply for their permits in their country of origin.

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