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45 years without an ID: a mother’s endless battle for Zim citizenship

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Like stray animals, they wander through life without a sense of belonging.

This is the story of undocumented Zimbabweans, whose existence is not recognised even after decades living in the southern African country.

Outside Boka tobacco sorting house in Hopley, a dozen women and men sit on anything they can find as they impatiently wait for the foreman to give them a day’s work.

To be considered as casual labour, one needs to have an identity document.

It is tobacco selling season, and it has come as a relief for job seekers in Hopley farm. Hopley, a poor settlement just outside Harare. It is made up of families of migrants, many of whom remain undocumented, 42 years after independence.

But Esther Manyinyo, 45, is using her cousin’s ID to find work. Their resemblance often confuses the foreman, so she survives to fight another day.

Her existence in Zimbabwe is unknown.

Manyinyo is second generation of stateless Zimbabweans in her family after her father moved to Southern Rhodesia in 1966 to find work.

Her father who came from Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia to work on a farm in Rutenga failed to secure Zimbabwean citizenship after the country attained its independence in 1980.

“My cousin and I look alive so the foreman do not see the difference. But I know that one day he will find out,” she chuckles.

“I have never been formally employed in this country because I do not have an ID. It is a tough life, which I do not want to leave my children, who are already looking to start their own families,” Manyinyo, a mother of four teenagers said.

Her children have found the going tough in schools as they are barred from taking their examinations without IDs.

“Besides finding work, I fear that my children will never lead a normal life without documentation. My eldest son is 18 but has failed to write his examinations,” she said.

To worsen an already complicated life, Manyinyo’s husband left her four years ago after several years of marriage.

Her husband left her because she is undocumented.

“I am now old, with five children. I have tried several times to get a birth certificate with no success. My marriage is broken because of failure to get particulars. He said he could not live with a woman without an ID. This has affected my children, they too do not have any documents,” she said.

As she recounts her heartrending story, her friend Marceline Mwendi, 38 listens carefully.

They share the same story. Mwendi’s husband also left three years ago , leaving her to should the burden of taking care of two children who also do not have identification.

“My husband left me because I do not own any particulars. My sister also got married and bore four children, but the husband chased her away because she has no ID. Living without any form of identification is tough, I cannot get a job. I survive on doing laundry, but we get exploited because there is no choice. There are always jobs but they take people with ID cards,” weeps Mwendi.

Many families in Hopley are living in stateless existence.

Mwendi will not vote in the 2023 elections.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 300 000 people are currently at risk of statelessness, while the exact number is unknown due to lack of official data.

A report by Amnesty International, entitled like Stray Animals, the statelessness crisis 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.

“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,” Amnesty International says.

Descendants of foreign nationalities who moved to Rhodesia to provide cheap migrant labour have for decades struggled with statelessness, with their situation worsened by discriminatory laws excluding descendants of migrant workers.

According to Amnesty International, draconian laws like the 1984, Citizenship of Zimbabwe Act, deprive persons of foreign origin from citizenship.

Although the Section 43 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, 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 piece of legislation is yet to be aligned to the new constitution.

Constitutional challenges have trapped thousands in statelessness.

Clever Musareka, 53 is also one among hundreds in Hopley living in stateless existence.

Having moved to Hopley from Caledonia farm after the 2005 Operation Murambatsvina, Musareka got a piece of land where he built a small house.

He has been staying here with his family.

But his existence is unknown.

Musareka owns a phone but uses a sim card registered in a neighbour’s name because of lack of identification.

Before he started staying in Caledonia, Musareka lived in Chipinge where his father, a Mozambican migrant married a Zimbabwean.

After he left Chipinge in 2000, he has no trace of his relatives most of whom returned to Mozambique or are now late.

“I have no one to help me get identification. I consider myself a Zimbabwean because I was born here but I just cannot get an ID,” he lamented.

Countless trips to the Births and Deaths office in Harare and others to satellite towns have been futile in his quest to get citizenship.

“At one point I was told to pay US$300 to process my papers but I was then warned that the agent could be fake,” Musareka said.

Desperate for identification documents, some of the stateless Zimbabweans fall prey to fake documentation, being made by unscrupulous agents in Harare.

Others have been offered stolen IDs and passports.

Amnesty International argues that citizenship is a human right.

“Amnesty International is calling on the Zimbabwean government to urgently take adequate measures to ensure the registration and restoration of Zimbabwean nationality to all those entitled to it, as provided for under the Constitution, including all those born and raised in Zimbabwe to foreign parents,” Amnesty International says.