Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


Although Zimbabweans have often crossed into Botswana for various reasons, the numbers involved escalated dramatically after 2000 as Zimbabwe entered a prolonged economic and political crisis from which it has still not recovered. While considerable research and policy attention has been given to the migration of Zimbabweans to South Africa, their movement to Botswana has a much lower profile, except when the two countries engage in charges and counter-charges over issues such as the building of electrified fences between the two countries or the corporal punishment of Zimbabwean migrants in Botswana. At such moments, relations between these two close neighbours are anything but friendly. This paper sets out to examine the nature and consequences of contemporary migration from Zimbabwe to Botswana. The analysis is based on a survey in 2010 of migrants who had entered Botswana for the first time within the previous five years. The survey was conducted in Gaborone and Francistown and supplemented by in-depth interviews with 50 migrants. The paper also uses official statistics from the Government of Botswana to track volumes and flows of migrants who cross the border through official border posts.

Official statistics show that the number of people legally entering Botswana from Zimbabwe more than doubled from 477,000 in 2000 to over 1 million in 2008. More than three-quarters of the traffic between the two countries comes through the road border at Ramokgwebana with another 5-10% entering at Ramokgwebana by rail. The only other significant entry point is at Kazungula in the far north of Botswana where the numbers tripled from 19,000 in 2006 to 63,000 in 2008. The vast majority of Zimbabwean migrants give “visitor” or “holiday” as their purpose of entry, which gives them up to 90 days legal stay in Botswana. In practice many stay for much shorter periods, especially those who cross the border to shop or to trade. The numbers entering for “business” purposes rose from around 12,500 in 2005 to over 40,000 in 2008. The number who said they were entering for employment increased from 4,110 to 13,586 between 2005 and 2008 but remained relatively unimportant as a proportion of total entries. By contrast, 43% of the migrants in the survey gave “seeking work” as their primary reason followed by 14% who came “to take up a job”. These figures are similar to those of Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa except that a greater proportion of responses of those who went to South Africa related to the search for work (33% versus 23%).

Botswana is also a stepping-stone for migrants who then move on to South Africa, their ultimate destination. Eighteen percent of the migrants interviewed for this study said they intended to proceed to South Africa to live and work there, with the most likely destinations being Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria. A companion study conducted in Cape Town and Johannesburg found that 19% of migrants had been in Botswana prior to coming to South Africa. In the three years from 2006 to 2008, however, more Zimbabweans entered Botswana from South Africa than the other way round (75,322 Zimbabweans arrived in Botswana from South Africa and only 59,721 left Botswana for South Africa.) This suggests either that returning home via Botswana may be easier for some or that Botswana is seen as a better option, having experienced South Africa and its xenophobic population.

Botswana also records and publishes data on departures from the country. Over time, the number of temporary arrivals and departures should even out. However, some Zimbabweans enter Botswana legally, say as a visitor or on holiday, and then find a job and stay for more than the 90 days allowed by their temporary residence permit. In the three years from 2006 to 2008, a total of 2,376,807 Zimbabweans entered Botswana through legal border posts and 2,354,842 left, a difference of only 21,965. In 2006 the number of departures even exceeded the number of entries by 95,000. In other words Botswana’s own migration data suggests that the vast majority of Zimbabweans who enter legally also leave.

Although Zimbabweans in Botswana come from all strata of society, Botswana was able to take particular advantage of the brain drain from Zimbabwe after 2000. The number of skilled and professional Zimbabweans given work permits increased from 1,177 in 2003 to 8,779 in 2009. Over this same period, the proportion of work permit holders from Zimbabwe rose from 20% to 46% of the total. At the same time, many migrants complain that they are discriminated against in the Botswana labour market and that it is virtually impossible to get a job in the public sector, with the exception of health and education.

The survey revealed the following profile of recent migrants to Botswana:

  • Fifty-five percent of the sample was male and 45% female. The majority of the migrants (over 60%) were under the age of 40. However, there was distinct gender difference within the sample with female migrants generally being younger than male. Only 4% of the men were under the age of 25, compared with 12% of the women. Thirty percent of the men were under the age of 30 compared with 42% of the women. The majority of men (57%) and many of the women (46%) were married. Almost half (49%) of all males were heads of household in Zimbabwe and 40% of all females were spouses of household heads.
  • Most (59%) had work permits while about a quarter possessed other official documents. Only 3% were permanent residents in Botswana. About 14% were irregular migrants (with slightly more males than females). There was a significant difference between male and female holders of official travel documents: 68% of males and 48% of females had work permits. Almost three-quarters of those with work permits had been professionals in Zimbabwe.

  • The majority of the migrants (78%) were employed, with 81% of those in full time employment. Men dominated the ranks of fulltime employees while most part-timers were women. Amongst the self-employed, there were more males than females. About 30% of the migrants had established businesses in the formal and informal sectors in Botswana since they arrived. Almost 45% of the migrants earned extra money from a second occupation.

  • Just over half (51%0 of the migrants had monthly incomes between P2,500 and P14,999 while 30% earned less than P2,500. There was a significant association between income and education as well as immigration status.

  • Most are circular migrants, returning home relatively frequently. Around 13% return to Zimbabwe at least once a month and another 24% every few months. Over 80% return at least once a year. Only 9% had never been back to Zimbabwe.

  • Zimbabwean migrants in Botswana are regular remitters: just over 80% had remitted money home during the previous year. Nearly a third (32%) remitted at least once a month and another 35% a few times a year. There is a clear relationship between the frequency of remitting and length of time in Botswana. For example, 35% of those who had been in Botswana for less than a year had never remitted, compared to 16% of those who had been there for 1-2 years and only 1% who had been there 3-5 years.

  • SAMP's recent study of Zimbabweans in South Africa found that 66% of migrants used informal transfer channels for remittances. In contrast, only 35% of Zimbabweans in Botswana use informal mechanisms (including 22% using personal transfer). In contrast to South Africa, 64% of migrants in Botswana use formal remittance channels: 51% remit through formal money transfer agencies (e.g. Western Union and Money Gram) and 13% use banks.

  • The cast majority of migrants (90%) said they intended to return, eventually, though most wanted a change in Zimbabwe’s political system to occur before making plans to return. At the same time, half said it was likely or very likely that they would return home for good within two years. There was a clear relationship between educational level and intention to return with the more educated and skilled less likely to foresee an early return to Zimbabwe. The lack of enthusiasm for an early return to Zimbabwe was reflected in the comparisons that migrants made between the two countries. On virtually every economic/livelihood measure, Botswana was judged to be superior to Zimbabwe.