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Becoming An Economic Refugee

Being Zimbabwean and not actually living in Zimbabwe has become the norm for many nationals of the country. This is because many Zimbabweans today fit the profile of what would be termed  ‘economic refugees’. Investopedia terms an economic refugee as someone who is faced with little opportunity to escape poverty in their home country and therefore decide to flee their country to start over in a different one. (Investopedia, 2020).

Economic Refugees are indirectly forced out of their homes by the inability of their government to provide them with opportunities that will earn them a decent standard of living. Most Zimbabweans one can come across are the most patriotic people of their country. Yet, they always sadly express the harsh realities of having to leave behind what they know to be home, and their families, so that they can have a chance at a better standard of living. 

The Breadbasket of Africa is Without…Bread

Once referred to as the ‘breadbasket of Africa,’ although, indeed just the breadbasket of the SADC region, Zimbabwe was the prime example of what independence could earn Africans. Yet the beloved son of the continent proved prodigal when its then leader, the late Robert G. Mugabe decided to stay true to his word to the veteran soldiers who had fought alongside him during the liberation struggle. He launched a plan to seize white-owned farms and redistribute their land to the original owners, the descendants of the peasant black farmers in February of 2000.This was not carried out peacefully and as a result, four white farmers and three labourers, whose race is not mentioned because only one race of people was meant to be labourers, were brutally murdered.

The West, known for their willingness to set Africa alight at the death of one of its own, was ready to impose sanctions on the continent’s pride. (Tonini, 2005). One would assume that the president, respected for his agile mind, would have thought through the implications his actions would have on his people. Still, that assumption would be proven wrong as more human rights violations became a norm and the country’s economy began to take a knock.

Failed harvests in Zimbabwe "How is your hunger?" - Caritas

[Image Source: Isabel Corthier]

Between the years 2002 to 2003, the US, EU, Australia, the UK and Canada imposed a wide range of sanctions on the country. (Chingono, 2010). The agricultural sector was destroyed, which led to 662 per cent inflation increase in 2005. Later on, in 2006, there was an actual bread shortage, with the country’s inflation rate at 1 204.6 per cent. (OCHA, 2006). This was the downfall of the government which would,  in Warsan Shire’s words, become the mouth of a shark that would drive its people out. Records of the number of Zimbabwean refugees are hard to come across as some are undocumented, but Mail&Guardian estimated numbers to be between 500 000 and 4 million in 2013. We can therefore estimate larger numbers in 2020 as the economy has only worsened since then. 

Nothing Is Without A Price

Leaving home has never been the easiest thing to do, yet doing it because your back has been pushed so hard against the wall you have no other choice is even more challenging. Due to the passport crisis, the country has persistently faced since 2007; it has gotten harder for citizens to acquire passports in time for their planned ‘relocations.’ (Mubaiwa, 2020). This can only imply that several Zimbabweans have been crossing the country’s borders undocumented. Matebeleland South police reported that South Africa had deported 23 150 Zimbabweans between January 1st and April 30th of the year 2020. (Immigration, 2020). Not having any documentation makes it hard for citizens to return home as they please. Their goodbyes to their family members could as well be their last as none know when they will be able to set their feet on the land their feet had lovingly walked on.

For the Zimbabweans uprooted when they were young, all they have are the reminiscences by their parents of what home used to look like. Many only learning about Zimbabwe when it is brought up as a study on hyperinflation in Economics class. Bearing the burden of having to defend a country they do not know. For those lucky enough to go back home for the holidays, they are encountered with a reality check they may have never expected. Instead of warm hugs and cheery welcomes, they are met with resentment because they do not sound like the nationals and their lives are a representation of what most want for themselves. Never acquainted enough to be considered Zimbabweans, and too foreign for the countries they grew up in, this is the price they pay—the loss of identity and a sense of belonging. To them, the saying that home is wherever the heart is is a reality. Home becomes the family that raised you. Not where your roots draw from the ground. 

Reaping The Fruits of The Sacrifice

What would be life, if not a series of sacrifices one makes to earn the life they believe they deserve? Although faced with hardships on the journey they embark to economic freedom, it would discount their experiences not to mention the ray of sunshine in the somewhat bleak experience. The access to opportunities, although some exploitative is miles better in comparison to the difficulties faced back home. These Zimbabweans have better access to opportunities their government back home continues to deny them. The education system they become privy to makes it easier for many to further their education at reputable universities which are employers’ favourites around the world. This opens them up to a world of seemingly infinite opportunities, thus enabling them to earn the standard of living that wasn’t made available to them and improve the lives of those back home. They become, to their extended family what Madonna is to Malawi. There is a considerable amount of peace of mind that comes with being away from a place that strips one of their human dignity. 


None of these challenges is enough to evoke anger within Zimbabweans in the diaspora. If anything, it seems to spark an even deeper commitment to the revolution of their country. Many are seen yearly, supporting their families back home by standing with them in protest against the notorious government. The longing to return home at some point in their lives is evident. In preparation for the July 2019 elections, a legal team filed a request for Zimbabweans living abroad to vote, to a court in Harare. The proposal was not met without disappointment as the court rejected it in claims that the government did not have enough funds to make this a reality. The desire to be part of the decision making of the country is proof that Zimbabweans wanting to be involved in the decision making of their country is the despair of people wanting to see a change in their lifetime, and not as ancestors reincarnated through the future generation. That someday, they too may cease to be foreigners in countries that look to spit them out at every chance they get.

The Long Walk Home


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Whatever we identify as a challenge, we have the potential to solve. Whilst the situation that the Zimbabwean nationals face may seem entirely up to the government to solve, there are a few ways the rest of the world may get involved in buying Zimbabweans the lifetime ticket home. 

  1. Acknowledge the Existence of Economic Refugees 
  • The ignorance around economic refugees is what makes governments in the countries that they find themselves relocating to, nonchalant in their approach in dealing with them.
  • Recognising the crises that the refugees face will encourage governments to establish policies that are more lenient and less harsh on the treatment of undocumented people. 
  1. Support NGOs
  • There are NGOs that are dedicated to improving the living standards of Zimbabwean nationals both in the country and in the diaspora. Support them through donating to them and volunteering at them.
  1. Advocacy
  • Put pressure on your governments and human rights organisations to put pressure on the Zimbabwean government to address the plight of their people and work towards actionable strategies that will address this.

Let’s take Zimbabweans home.

[Source: Anne-Sharlene Murapa


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Investopedia. (2020, January 4th). Economic Refugee Definition. Investopedia.

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Mubaiwa, K. (2020, July 28th). A passport is a privilege in Zimbabwe. African Arguments.

Economic Refugee – Investopedia.

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