Zimbabwe: Statelessness crisis traps hundreds of thousands in limbo

Amnesty International | 16 April 2021, 05:49 UTC

Amnesty International/Tsvangirai Mukwazhi


Hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the misery of statelessness in Zimbabwe have been forced to the margins of society, and struggle to access education, healthcare and housing, Amnesty International said today in a new report. The organization interviewed descendants of migrant workers who settled in Zimbabwe pre-independence, as well as survivors of the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s; two groups locked out of citizenship by a cruel combination of discrimination and bureaucracy.


"For Zimbabwe’s stateless, everyday life is filled with obstacles. Accessing education, healthcare and employment can be a nightmare, and the sense of exclusion and rejection is soul destroying"

Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Southern Africa


The report, We are like “stray animals”, details how Zimbabwe’s discriminatory and arbitrary nationality laws have left generations of migrant workers and their families marginalized in the only country they have ever called home. Meanwhile, thousands of survivors of the horrific Gukurahundi massacres, one of the bloodiest episodes of Robert Mugabe’s rule, are denied citizenship because they cannot provide the death certificates of relatives, which are required to prove Zimbabwean nationality.


“For Zimbabwe’s stateless, everyday life is filled with obstacles. Accessing education, healthcare and employment can be a nightmare, and the sense of exclusion and rejection is soul destroying,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southern Africa.


“The Zimbabwean authorities must take concrete action to address this crisis, including mapping and registering all stateless people. Authorities must ensure laws are in line with Zimbabwe’s own Constitution, as well as international human rights law.”


In Zimbabwe, approximately 300,000 people are currently at risk of statelessness, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Lack of official data means that the exact number is unknown.


Migration and statelessness


Amnesty International research lays bare the devastating consequences of statelessness on the eve of 41 years of independence where many hoped to live in a country where they are treated equally, regardless of their political affiliation or ethnicity. The current statelessness crisis in Zimbabwe has its roots in colonial history. The British colonial government largely depended on cheap migrant labour from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia to grow its industries.


"The Zimbabwean authorities must take concrete action to address this crisis, including mapping and registering all stateless people. Authorities must ensure laws are in line with Zimbabwe’s own Constitution, as well as international human rights law"

Muleya Mwananyanda


After independence in 1980, Zimbabwean authorities passed a series of discriminatory laws which have, over the years, effectively excluded, marginalized and disenfranchised the descendants of these workers.


For example, the 1984 Citizenship of Zimbabwe Act 23 was used to arbitrarily deprive persons of “foreign origin” of their right to a Zimbabwean nationality, even though most were entitled to citizenship under the Constitution. Section 43 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution states that any resident who was born in Zimbabwe to parents with a claim to citizenship of any SADC state - including Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa - is a Zimbabwean citizen by birth.


The Citizenship Act is not yet aligned to the Constitution and continues to be used by the Ministry of Home Affairs to deny citizenship arbitrarily and unfairly to descendants of migrant workers. In so doing the Citizenship Act gives almost unfettered discretion and arbitrary powers to both executive and junior officials to deny people their constitutional rights.


In 2001, a new law required descendants of migrant workers to renounce their ancestral nationality within six months, in order to be granted Zimbabwean citizenship. Many people were unable to do so because they did not hold the requisite identity documents. To be granted Zimbabwean citizenship, they first needed to prove that their parents had been nationals of other countries.


One man, Alex, whose father was Zambian, said: “I have no idea how I can locate my parents’ relatives as I have never been to Zambia.”


Alex does not have death certificates for either his father or his Zimbabwean mother. As a result, he has been denied citizenship, which prevented him from going beyond Grade 7 at school and means neither of his children have birth certificates.


Precarious futures


In this way, the legal limbo of statelessness is perpetuated across generations. Parents are denied birth certificates for their children if they cannot present their own, leaving their children facing precarious futures.


Without the necessary identity documents, many stateless children are unable to access education. Those who do attend school are often forced to drop out, or prevented from sitting their final exams.


Lulamani, a 23-year-old woman, said:


“Life has been difficult and painful. I was brilliant at school, but I did not sit my final exams. Now I can’t get a decent job.”


One man Amnesty Interviewed, Petros, said:


“My eldest child in primary school cannot play soccer for the school like other children because he does not have a birth certificate.”