Queues stretched for kilometres at immigration offices in South Africa on Friday as thousands of Zimbabweans tried to meet a year-end deadline to file papers for legalising their stay in the country.
South Africa allowed hundreds of thousands from Zimbabwe to enter without documents about two years ago when its neighbour was swept up in political violence and its already unsteady economy collapsed under the weight of hyperinflation.
More than 200,000 had already applied for visas, the Home Affairs Ministry said, far short of what non-governmental groups said could be as many as 1.5 million to 2.5 million Zimbabweans in South Africa, the continent's largest economy.
We need an extension. There are just too many of us here, said Zimbabwean IT technician Phakamami Dube, one of the few who has received a proper visa.
With unemployment at 25 percent, South Africa has faced criticism from its poor for allowing Zimbabweans, the largest immigrant group in the state, to enter its territory without documents. The Zimbabweans fill a vast array of jobs, from menial labourers to highly paid professionals.
The deadline sets the stage for a mass deportation next year that could spark fresh violence directed at foreigners, after deadly attacks two years ago unnerved investors and rattled the government.
South Africa has extended working hours at immigration offices and eased paperwork requirements to make it easier to apply.
It has also said it will not extend the deadline. It will not begin deporting the immigrants until it has processed all the papers filed by the deadline, officials said.
Zimbabwe has deployed a team in South Africa to help process documents. But few expect the bulk of immigrants to relocate: Zimbabwe is mired in economic hardship, with most people earning less than a dollar a day, and per capita GDP is about 95 percent lower than in South Africa.
The migrants are likely voters for rivals to long-standing leader Robert Mugabe, so their return could alter the course of an election sought by his ZANU-PF party for next year. They are also a source of remittance payments that help steady Zimbabwe's wobbly economy.
If you cut off the supply lines from South Africa and without the money from South Africa, the humanitarian conditions in Zimbabwe would worsen, said Loren Landau, director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Mugabe, 86 and in power for three decades, has called for elections in 2011 to dissolve a coalition government he formed last year with his rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, after a disputed election that was scarred by political violence.