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By Staff Reporter

SOUTH Africa deported an astonishing 200 000 illegal immigrants in 2005 -- and half of those were Zimbabweans, it has been revealed.

South Africa's Home Affairs spokesman Nkosana Sibuyi said: "If you are in South Africa with no documentation you are considered or declared an illegal immigrant.

"If people are illegally in South Africa as a result of socio-political conditions in their own country, they can apply for asylum."

It is estimated that there are close to two million Zimbabweans in South Africa, most of them illegal immigrants.

Zimbabweans have been fleeing a slumped economy in Zimbabwe with inflation topping 500%.

Last week, it was revealed that more than 3000 Zimbabweans were deported during the Christmas holidays.

South Africa even took the unusual step of flying some of the illegal immigrants to Zimbabwe, sparking a confused reaction in Harare where the government briefly detained the deportees for yet unexplained reasons.

A total of 97 433 illegal Zimbabwean immigrants were deported last year.

Sibuyi said illegal immigrants were not targeted by country or continent and said that those deported last year were from many different countries throughout the world.

He said a total of 77 868 illegal immigrants from Mozambique were deported last year, 9 225 from Lesotho, 4 296 from Malawi and 193 from Nigeria. Smaller numbers from Australia, China, India, Pakistan and Peru were also deported in 2005.

On Monday, South Africa and Zimbabwe opened an office to help curb illegal immigration and the abuse of labour laws.

The office, at the Beit Bridge border post, was the first of its kind in Africa and would help assist Zimbabweans seeking employment in South Africa with legal papers, the Labour Department said.

It would also be the major recipient of about 2000 Zimbabwean deportees repatriated on a weekly basis from South Africa.

"Deportees and other people in need of legal documents will be served food and other basic amenities while their papers are sorted," the department said in a statement.

"The office includes among others, an HIV/Aids counselling centre and will be the centre point for World Food Programme support."

The office was opened by South African Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana and his Zimbabwean counterpart Nicholas Goche.

The ministers agreed the office would help minimise illegal immigration and the abuse of Zimbabweans by unscrupulous employers seeking to make a profit through the South African labour laws.

They said the move would also decrease levels of crime in the border area.

"My government will do everything to make the good intentions of the office work," Goche said.

Mdladlana said the initiative would be "a good forum to fight xenophobia".

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