Accessibility links

Breaking News

Amnesty International: Hundreds of Thousands of People Trapped in Misery of Statelessness in Zimbabwe

Hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the misery of statelessness in Zimbabwe have been forced to the margins of society, and struggle to access education, healthcare and housing, according to Amnesty International.

In a report titled ‘We are like stray animals’, Amnesty International interviewed descendants of migrant workers who settled in Zimbabwe before independence, as well as survivors of the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s - two groups locked out of citizenship by a “cruel combination of discrimination and bureaucracy.”

The report details what it calls Zimbabwe’s discriminatory and arbitrary nationality laws that have left generations of migrant workers and their families marginalized in the only country they have ever called home. At the same time, thousands of survivors of the Gukurahundi massacres, one of the bloodiest episodes of the late former president Robert Mugabe’s rule, are denied citizenship because they cannot provide death certificates of killed relatives, which are required to prove Zimbabwean nationality.

“For Zimbabwe’s stateless, everyday life is filled with obstacles. Accessing education, healthcare and employment can be a nightmare, and the sense of exclusion and rejection is soul destroying,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s deputy director for southern Africa.

“The Zimbabwean authorities must take concrete action to address this crisis, including mapping and registering all stateless people. Authorities must ensure laws are in line with Zimbabwe’s own Constitution, as well as international human rights law.”

In Zimbabwe, approximately 300,000 people are currently at risk of statelessness, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


The Amnesty International research lays bare the devastating consequences of statelessness on the eve of the country’s 41 years of independence, where they were expecting to be treated equally, regardless of their political affiliation or ethnicity.

Amnesty International said the current statelessness crisis in Zimbabwe 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.

After independence in 1980, Zimbabwean authorities passed a series of discriminatory laws which have, over the years, effectively excluded, marginalized and disenfranchised the descendants of these workers.

Amnesty International says the1984 Citizenship of Zimbabwe Act 23 was used to arbitrarily deprive persons of “foreign origin” of their right to a Zimbabwean nationality, even though most were entitled to citizenship under the Constitution. Section 43 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution 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.

Amnesty International says the Citizenship Act is not yet aligned to the Constitution and continues to be used by the Ministry of Home Affairs to deny citizenship arbitrarily and unfairly to descendants of migrant workers. It said, the Citizenship Act gives almost unfettered discretion and arbitrary powers to both executive and junior officials to deny people their constitutional rights.

In 2001, a new law required descendants of migrant workers to renounce their ancestral nationality within six months, in order to be granted Zimbabwean citizenship. Many people were unable to do so because they did not hold the requisite identity documents. To be granted Zimbabwean citizenship, they first needed to prove that their parents had been nationals of other countries.

One of the affected people is a man with a Zambian father, who says, “I have no idea how I can locate my parents’ relatives as I have never been to Zambia.”

Alex does not have death certificates for either his father or his Zimbabwean mother. As a result, he has been denied citizenship, which prevented him from going beyond Grade 7 at school and means neither of his children have birth certificates.


Amnesty International says 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.

Without the necessary identity documents, many stateless children are unable to access education. Those who do attend school are often forced to drop out, or prevented from sitting their final exams.

Lulumani, a 23-year-old woman, says, “Life has been difficult and painful. I was brilliant at school, but I did not sit my final exams. Now I can’t get a decent job.”

Another person identified as Petros is also affected by statelessness.

“My eldest child in primary school cannot play soccer for the school like other children because he does not have a birth certificate.”

Stateless people in Zimbabwe also face barriers to accessing health care. Pregnant women are excluded from critical life-saving services such as antenatal care and assistance during labour.

Botshiwe Dube, from Tsholotsho, told Amnesty International how she went to a health centre when she went into labour, but when she could not provide an identity document she was sent home to deliver her children.

All of Botshiwe’s children were born at home. She told Amnesty International that she feels they are treated like “stray animals because they are undocumented.”

Those without identity documents are also excluded from participating in political activities and from running their own businesses.


The Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s also affected thousands of people in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions where the government deployed the Fifth Brigade to deal with the so-called dissident menace. Mugabe claimed then that Zapu leader Joshua Nkomo was supporting dissidents, who were destabilizing Zimbabwe with the intention of toppling his government.

According to the Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace, an estimated 20,000 people were killed by the Fifth Brigade in the two regions that were believed to be PF Zapu strongholds.

Amnesty International says when the crackdown was over, traumatized survivors had to grapple with the challenges of statelessness as they were required to produce death certificates to prove that their parents were killed by the Fifth Brigade.

However, death certificates for people killed in the Gukurahundi operation were not issued, and those who were orphaned as a result of the violence had no way of proving their parents’ nationality.

Sixty-eight year-old Vaina Ndlovu of Tsholotsho, Matabeleland North, is cited in the Amnesty International report as one of the people who were affected by the Gukurahundi atrocities.

Vaina’s father was abducted by Fifth Brigade and never heard from again following his abduction. When Vaina tried to obtain a death certificate for her father, registry office officials told her they needed witnesses to confirm that her father was abducted during Gukurahundi, which Vaina’s family could not provide.


Stateless people in Zimbabwe struggle to access housing, healthcare and education, violating their rights under the Constitution, as well as international and regional human rights treaties including the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Zimbabwe is a State Party.

Amnesty International says states have a right to determine their citizenship laws and these laws must be in conformity with international human rights law. As such, it says, domestic law and practices must not be discriminatory and must conform to international legal obligations to not render anyone stateless.

“Zimbabwe must make concrete and urgent changes to the law to bring the Citizenship Act in line with the Constitution. The authorities must take the necessary steps to ensure no further generations are condemned to the margins of society,” said Muleya Mwananyanda.

“The Zimbabwean authorities must publicly commit to creating an equal and inclusive society that accords citizenship to any person born on Zimbabwean soil, without discrimination based on national or ethnic origin.”

Amnesty International says 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.