Zimbabwe + 2 more

National and international responses to the Zimbabwean exodus: implications for the refugee protection regime

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New Issues in Refugee Research

Research Paper No. 175

Alexander Betts
University of Oxford

Esra Kaytaz
University of Oxford


This paper examines the implications of responses to the Zimbabwean exodus between 2005 and 2009 for the international refugee protection regime. The case poses a particular challenge for the regime because the majority of people leaving fall neither within the legal definition of a 'refugee' nor are they voluntary, economic migrants. Rather, the article suggests that they fall within a broader category of 'survival migration', fleeing an existential threat to which they have no domestic remedy. The reasons for their flight have mainly been a combination of state collapse, livelihood failure, and environmental disaster.

Drawing upon empirical research in South Africa and Botswana, the paper highlights the inadequacy of the national and international response to address the protection needs of Zimbabweans. It shows how, although some protection needs have been met, this has been on an ad hoc and insufficient basis, with significant variation between the South Africa and Botswana cases.

The paper argues that, given that the situation is not unique and is likely to re-emerge in the context of environmental, livelihood and state collapse elsewhere, there is a need for the refugee regime to adapt by developing a new multilateral normative and institutional framework on subsidiary protection, drawing upon states' existing commitments under international human rights law.