"Official responses to Zimbabwean migration in Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique are still premised on this distinction, and so are failing to protect both Zimbabweans and [their own] citizens," noted Zimbabwean Migration into Southern Africa: New Trends and Responses, a report released in early December by the Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Neighbouring countries have been an essential lifeline for thousands of poor Zimbabweans, said Monica Kiwanuka, the main researcher for the report. Those crossing the border were not refugees - most did not even apply for refugee status - and, given the extent of economic collapse at home, could hardly be considered "voluntary" economic migrants.
"Many Zimbabweans who qualify for refugee status ... do not apply for asylum due to the need to move back and forth across borders to support families left behind. They resist the category of refugee, which connotes dependency, and they emphasize their ability to work," Kiwanuka told IRIN.
"Yet there are currently no legal instruments in the region, or in specific countries, that address the needs of this forced, mixed and livelihood-seeking migration," she commented. Only recognized refugees and asylum seekers qualify for humanitarian assistance and legal protection in a host state.
"So many Zimbabweans are not legally protected, nor do they receive humanitarian support, as they fall outside the mandates of these support structures," Kiwanuka commented.
With the exception of South Africa, protection and access to services in most countries in the region is contingent on receiving refugee status, and require asylum seekers to stay in isolated camps, unable to work or travel, and thus send money home.
South Africa is considering the introduction of a special permit for Zimbabweans but the policy is still under review.
"These [conditions] are unsuited to [their] needs," Kiwanuka said, and defeated the purpose of crossing the border, so most Zimbabweans did not apply for asylum. The alternative of having to fend for themselves allowed the flexibility to move back and forth between countries as shoppers, labourers and traders.
Despite persistent deportations, xenophobic attacks and other means of exclusion, poor Zimbabweans have been prepared to risk anything to earn an income in a host country.
A Zimbabwean interviewed in Botswana explained: "To accept to return home after being dropped [for deportation] at Plumtree [on the Zimbabwe/Botswana border] means I have agreed to let my people die ... you [would] rather die trying to get back inside [Botswana] and find money to keep them alive."
Kiwanuka said responses to Zimbabwean migrants were not harmonized among the four countries: "In Botswana, Zambia and Malawi, asylum is available to Zimbabweans; in Mozambique, the few people who have applied for asylum have been rejected due to the state's decision to consider Zimbabweans as 'economic' and not forced humanitarian migrants."
Obtaining a Zimbabwean passport was not only very difficult but also extremely expensive, which contributed to the problem. "We all want to be out of trouble, but where can we find the passports these people want from us?" another migrant in Botswana complained.
"Since undocumented migrants fall outside the mandates of the two key support structures in humanitarian assistance - government and non-government institutions," the needs of undocumented Zimbabweans remained "invisible and unmet". Migrants lived precariously, "earning meagre incomes in the host countries and barely covering their basic human needs for shelter and food," the researchers found.
"Lack of protection of migrants in the region is based on a false distinction between a forced and an economic migrant, instead of focusing on the real and urgent needs some of these migrants have," Kiwanuka said.
The report suggested that a better term would be "forced humanitarian migrants", who moved for the purpose of their and their dependents' basic survival.
Underscoring the importance of a common humanitarian position on the outflow of Zimbabweans into the region, and the challenge various agencies faced in reconciling their mandates with real needs on the ground, the Regional Office for Southern Africa of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs coined the term "migrants of humanitarian concern" in 2008.
Nde Ndifonka, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told IRIN: "We categorize these migrant populations from Zimbabwe broadly as 'mobile and vulnerable populations'.
"Refugees have some specific needs, rights and responsibilities, which fall under the mandate of UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency]. They also have more general needs, rights and responsibilities within the broader category migrants, which is where IOM operates, he said.
In general, "Migrants, as everyone else within the country, are the responsibility of government. As an intergovernmental organization with expertise in migration management, IOM, just like UNHCR, works with the government to address migration and migrant (including refugee) challenges, within the available resources," Ndifonka commented.
But the bottom line, said FMSP's Kiwanuka, was that interventions would "need to acknowledge the humanitarian nature of migration from Zimbabwe", and "policy response should focus on providing some measure of humanitarian support to the most vulnerable, supporting employment and self-employment, and permitting cross-border mobility."