By Jon Herskovitz
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa has set the stage for the mass deportation of more than one million Zimbabwean immigrants later this month in a move that could alter its status as the world's largest country of refuge.
South Africa has been a beacon for asylum seekers due to its liberal immigration laws, proximity to African trouble spots and massive economy compared to the rest of the continent that has attracted millions seeking wealth they cannot find at home.
About one in five of the 845,800 asylum seekers globally in 2010 sought refuge in South Africa, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
That is nearly double the combined figure for the United States and France, the world's number two and three countries in terms of asylum applications.
The bulk of asylum seekers are from neighboring Zimbabwe, which has become an economic basket case under its entrenched leader Robert Mugabe, whose ZANU-PF party has been charged by global powers with using violence and vote fraud to stay in power.
The government said the crackdown on the Zimbabweans is a signal it wants to get tough on those who use asylum applications to seek work and money.
"Following this project, our intention is to document nationals of other neighboring countries," said Home Affairs spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa.
South Africa allowed hundreds of thousands from Zimbabwe to enter without documents about two years ago when its neighbor was swept up in political violence and its already unsteady economy collapsed under the weight of hyperinflation.
It set an end of 2010 deadline for the Zimbabweans to apply for proper visas -- with 275,000 filling out paperwork -- and said when July ends, it will start deporting what analysts estimate could be one to two million other Zimbabweans without proper documents.
With few staff and a flood of applicants, it can take Home Affairs months or even years to process applications, allowing immigrants to stay long enough to earn mostly modest sums of money to help their families back home.
"As long as regional economic inequalities remain so stark, South Africa will continue to be a primary (if temporary) destination," said Loren Landau, director of the African Center for Migration and Society at the University the Witwatersrand.
The only problem is that those legitimately seeking political asylum face an uncertain future, waiting longer in South Africa for a decision than in many other countries.
A concern for South Africa is that not only are the number of asylum seekers from neighboring countries growing, but so are the numbers from further afield African states including Somalia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
With unemployment at 25 percent, the government has faced criticism from its poor for allowing immigrants into South Africa, where they compete for scarce jobs and space in shantytowns that have mushroomed in major cities.
Tensions flared about two years ago when attacks on migrants left at least 62 dead and more than 100,000 homeless, rattling the nerves of the government and investors.
The refugees strain public services but many also take on jobs for which there are not enough skilled South Africans, or perform work that South Africans do not want to do.
"I would say that the net result is that the benefit equates to or surpasses the burden," said James Chapman, a refugee attorney at the University of Cape Town Law Clinic.
The government, concerned about the influx, is planning to tighten its borders and expel those who stay illegally.
"The issue here is not about too many asylum seekers, per se. Rather, it's about a migration management regime that is ill-suited to South Africa's regional position," Landau said.
(Additional reporting by Mmathabo Tladi; Editing by Marius Bosch and Sophie Hares)