Zimbabwe: Expats Keep Families Afloat

London — The scale of migration to Britain by Zimbabweans escaping their country's economic and political woes has reached the point where, with typically wry humour, London is referred to as "Harare North".

An estimated three million Zimbabweans, a quarter of the total population, have packed their bags and left home. Most, typically the semi-skilled, have opted for neighbouring countries, but many others have chosen Britain's green, if damp, pastures.

The welcome mat is extended for 'in demand' professionals - doctors, nurses, teachers and IT specialists - with work relatively easy to come by. For others, even those who held down good jobs at home, there is the minimum wage niche reserved for migrants the world over - office cleaning, working in burger chains and looking after the elderly.

John and his wife Chipo* are among the lucky ones. She is a nurse who was recruited in 2000 and then moved to England, working at a hospital outside London. John was an accountant in a bank in Zimbabwe: he found a job at a slightly junior grade to the position he had held at home, but quickly moved up the ladder and is now in a supervisory position.

"Initially the English people were not too sure what to do with me, but I proved myself," he said. The couple are happy; they drive a car and have taken out a mortgage on a three-bedroom house. They try to maintain a 'Zimbabwean' home for their two children, but it seems a losing battle; hanging out with local kids, the boys aged six and four struggle to speak Shona.

When they came to the Britain the idea was to work for a few years, make some money and go back home. But John says returning is no longer on the agenda. "Our oldest boy is now in school and we have a house, so it looks like we are here to stay; besides, why would we want to raise our children in a place where we cannot feed them?"

The economic crisis in Zimbabwe, with inflation at 14,000 percent and shortages of even basic commodities, means John and Chipo have become the mainstay of their families at home. "We have to send them money regularly because there is virtually no way for them to support themselves at the moment," John said.

Elizabeth used to be a secretary in Zimbabwe. Once she got to Britain it did not take her long to realise it was going to be very difficult to get a similar job, so she did what many Zimbabweans, both male and female, do: care for the aged.

"It's a tough job but it pays my bills, and besides putting my siblings back home through school, I send my parents money every month," she told IRIN. She prays for Zimbabwe's recovery. "I'd love to go back - this is not my home and I put up with a lot of prejudice from white people." She does not think she is targeted because she is Zimbabwean, "I think it's something every black person experiences."

A leveller

The experience of migration is one shared by both black and white Zimbabweans, and has in some cases been a leveller. Zimbabwean whites, who for two decades after independence were a privileged minority, can also feel the pinch in exile, despite their British ancestry.

Jane's husband is a businessman in the capital, Harare, but as the economy stumbled he found it increasingly difficult to maintain the standard of living they were used to and Jane, middle-aged, went to London.

It was not easy to find work, and she eventually took a job looking after rich English people's dogs while they were on holiday. "It provides free board and the pay is not bad," she said. Luckily for her she loves dogs, and earns enough to send money regularly to her husband.

Although she was born in England she says she has little in common with local people, whom she says she dislikes, mainly because they keep her at arm's length. She also misses the good weather "back home", and says she will be on the first plane back to Harare as soon as the political situation in Zimbabwe changes. "I am sure once the uncertainty goes we can rebuild what we had, but all we can do now is wait."

A 2006 study found that at least half of all households in Harare and Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, were regular recipients of goods and money from relatives living outside the country. As Zimbabweans in Britain increase their earning power, there has been a proliferation of companies through which they can remit money, and even fuel and groceries.

It is a simple process: the money is deposited into the company's bank account in Britain, and the funds are transferred directly to the beneficiary's bank account in Zimbabwe. John, the accountant, said this was the best way of remitting money as it attracted the government's highly overvalued exchange rate.

One of the biggest online remitting companies, Mukuru.com, allows people to pay for privately imported fuel in Britain. Their relatives are alerted to the transfer by SMS and collect their vouchers, which they then redeem for fuel. UK-based Zimbabweans can also pay for groceries imported from South Africa, and provide their relations with access to treatment via medical insurance taken out in Britain.

* Real names have not been used

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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