By Sunday Mail
OVER 11 000 Zimbabweans living in foreign lands have returned home since the COVID-19-induced lockdown, with thousands more still en-route and due to arrive over the next few weeks, official data shows.
Stung largely by job losses and untenable living conditions, many were retracing their footsteps back home.
Among the expected returnees, are over 1 000 Zimbabweans studying in the United States of America, who could be affected after the Donald Trump administration asked foreign students in the US, whose colleges have shifted to online teaching, to shift to schools that have in-person classes or leave the country.
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a statement saying that non-immigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in that country.
Zimbabwe is also expecting 300 of its citizens from China, mostly students who have completed their programmes.
About 100 of those students were expected to come with an Air Zimbabwe plane that was already in China by last week.
From South Africa, thousands await Government-assisted repatriation, with 300 Zimbabweans recently released from South African prisons being part of that delegation.
This group is currently detained at South Africa’s largest immigrant holding facility — Lindela Repatriation Centre — while Governments of the two countries arrange for their deportation.
The Sunday Mail has gathered that among the group were criminals convicted of serious crimes, including rape, armed robbery and murder.
They have all been slapped with five-year bans from South Africa.
The influx is raising serious concern about the possible importation of Covid-19 cases from hotspots such as the USA and South Africa.
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister Dr Sibusiso Moyo told The Sunday Mail that Government had requested South African authorities to delay the deportation of the criminals while arrangements were made on activating protocols to receive them safely.
He said the decision to deport the prisoners came after some inmates in South African prisons tested positive for Covid-19.
“We have more than 300 Zimbabweans who were released from various prisons in South Africa,” said Dr Moyo.
“South Africa called us to say we are releasing your people, but, however, some had completed their sentences in the various prisons.
“We negotiated with them so that they can at least keep them at the detention centre while we work on necessary arrangements and have them deported.”
He said the Registrar-General was now verifying the nationality of the released criminals before they are allowed into Zimbabwe.
Once verification is confirmed, the prisoners will be deported through Beitbridge Border Post.
He said Government is considering staggering the deportation to make sure quarantine centres are not overwhelmed.
“Our quarantine centres in Beitbridge are under a lot of pressure considering that we have huge numbers coming in through that port of entry.
“We are, therefore, considering having them deported in smaller groups or having them quarantined in their various provinces.”
The released prisoners, he added, have ceased to be the responsibility of the South African Department of Correctional Service and are now reliant on well-wishers for food.
“These people are dependent on well-wishers for food, toiletries and other needs, which makes their situation a sensitive one. Well-wishers, most of whom are Zimbabweans, are helping to ensure they have food and other stuff that they need.”
Official data obtained from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows that 11 074 returnees had trooped back as of Tuesday last week.
Hundreds more were expected to arrive from China during the week. South Africa has accounted for most of the returnees, with 5 043 having returned from the neighbouring country, while a further 3 628 came in from Botswana.
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Deputy Minister Mr David Musabayana said most of the returnees had been affected by adverse economic conditions in their adopted homes.
“In terms of total returnees, as at the 7th of July, we had 11 074, of those males are 6 073 and females are 5 001,” he said.
“The country that has given the most in terms of returnees is South Africa, which has given 5 043 returnees, followed by Botswana with 3 628 and Namibia with 357. From Mozambique, we have had 487 returnees and from Zambia we had 248.
“Outside of Africa, from the United States of America we have had 263 returnees and a further 241 from Miami, while only 174 have returned from the United Kingdom. From China we have had 580 returnees.”
He said all the returnees had gone through mandatory quarantine at designated centres throughout the country.
“Most of these people were working for different organisations using work permits and because of the lockdowns most organisations were closed and they were pushed out of work. So, most of them saw it fit to come back home. Some are saying they had their contracts cancelled and could not afford to continue paying rentals and other living expenses,” he said.
“Others have returned just because they felt it was time to come back home. Some were running away from epicentres and felt they would be safer at home.”
He revealed that Zimbabweans with permanent residence permits from South Africa but were caught up in the lockdown before they could return to their foreign bases had begun requesting facilitation for their safe passage back to their adopted homes.
“We have some Zimbabweans with permanent residence permits who were trapped here are and are now asking to return back to work, and we have since begun negotiating with South African authorities to allow them to go back.”
Government, he said, was creating a database of all Zimbabwean citizens who died from Covid-19 in foreign lands in order to ascertain the true impact it has had on the Zimbabwean Diaspora.