V. Fleeing persecution: Operation Murambatsvina (“the evictions”)

People targeted by the 2005 campaign of forced evictions in Zimbabwe have a strong claim to refugee status under international refugee law. Section VI of this report will set out the legal arguments in detail. Before that, this section sets out a summary of the evictions and testimony from Zimbabweans in South African and Zimbabwe who were targeted by the evictions, on which the legal arguments will draw.

The Evictions

On May 25, 2005, the Zimbabwean authorities began “Operation Murambatsvina,” which translates as “Clear the Filth.” The two-month campaign, which this report will refer to as “the evictions,” directly or indirectly affected almost 2.7 million persons.66 It was officially aimed at “cleaning” Zimbabwe’s urban areas of informal trading and housing structures. The evictions lasted until July 25, 2005, and destroyed informal traders’ trading structures, shanty dwellings of the poorest residents, and unauthorized extensions of more solid homes in the better off parts of the urban areas. Most of Zimbabwe’s urban centers were affected, including Harare, Bulawayo, Chinhoyi, Gweru, Kadoma, Kwe Kew, Marondera and Mutare, and Victoria Falls. After the evictions, the police strictly enforced a ban on informal trading.

While the evictions were still ongoing, the UN Secretary General appointed Anna Tibaijuka, the director of the UN Center for Human Settlements (Habitat), as the UN’s “special envoy on human settlement issues in Zimbabwe.” Based on her visit to Zimbabwe in June 2005, the UN special envoy published a report in August 2005 (UN report)67 which concluded that by July 7, 2005, 92,460 housing structures had been destroyed, affecting 133,534 households at more than 52 sites; approximately 700,000 people in cities across the country lost either their homes, their source of livelihood, or both;68 the evictions forced approximately 500,000 children out of school or seriously disrupted their education.

The evictions took place in the context of an increasingly serious economic crisis. Despite facing recurring drought and an AIDS pandemic, the problems faced by Zimbabwe even before the evictions were “primarily man-made,” and “a mixture of failed governance, food insecurity and manipulation of food for political ends, and economic meltdown, including triple digit inflation, over 70 percent unemployment, and large shortages of consumer items, fuel and foreign currency.”69

By the time the evictions took place, the formal economy had deteriorated to such an extent that only 1.3 million Zimbabweans were employed, leaving 3 to 4 million Zimbabweans with no other option but to work in the informal economy in the country’s urban centers.70 The UN report concluded that by 2004, 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s urban population was unemployed and that 75 percent of this group was living below the poverty line.71 The informal economy was their only lifeline. Furthermore, the Zimbabwean authorities “turned a blind eye” to this “explosion of the informal sector,” thereby actively encouraging its growth.72

The Zimbabwean government’s decision to destroy the informal economy through the evictions was, therefore, taken in the full knowledge that there would be no employment alternative for those targeted by the evictions that would help them to rebuild their lives and feed their families. This makes the government’s subsequent ban on informal trading and its failure to assist those it had evicted all the more serious.73

The evictions also took place against a backdrop of a housing crisis. The UN report describes how since 1980 the urban population had grown at an annual rate of up to 8 percent. New arrivals to the cities rented cheap rooms in “backyard extensions” built by low-income urban residents without official permission. These owners often became dependent on rent collection as their main source of income. The UN report notes that by the time the evictions took place, “this type of ‘backyard tenancy’ had… become the dominant source of housing for low income families.”74

In summary, in carrying out the evictions, the Zimbabwean government targeted people who it knew full well “were already among the most economically disadvantaged groups in society,” and who were inevitably “pushed deeper into poverty… becom[ing] even more vulnerable.”75

People Directly76 Affected

Numerous reports have documented the immediate aftermath of the evictions.77 The International Crisis Group provided an account of the extent of the displacement:

[N]early 20 per cent (114,000) of those displaced by the operation slept in the open at the mercy of winter temperatures as low as 8°C at night, risking sickness or even death through exposure. Another 20 percent returned to rural areas while nearly 30 percent (170,000) sheltered with family and friends in urban areas. The remaining 30 percent took temporary refuge in churches across the country or are moving around cities, sleeping mainly in parks, on the roadside, or in other open places. Police have been rounding up this latter category, either detaining them or sending them to unspecified destinations.78

The UN report said that the evictions created a state of emergency, summarizing its findings on the impact on more than half a million rendered homeless as follows:

It has created a state of emergency as tens of thousands of families and vulnerable women and children are left in the open without protection from the elements, without access to adequate water and sanitation or health care, and without food security. Such conditions are clearly life-threatening. In human settlements terms, the Operation has rendered over half a million people, previously housed in so-called substandard dwellings, either homeless or living with friends and relatives in overcrowded and health-threatening conditions. In economic terms, the Operation has destroyed and seriously disrupted the livelihoods… of people who were coping, however poorly, with the consequences of a prolonged economic crisis.79

In 2005 Human Rights Watch reported that the evictions took a particularly heavy toll on vulnerable groups: widows, orphans, the elderly, households headed by women or children, and people living with HIV/AIDS. Thousands of people were left destitute, sleeping in the open without shelter or basic services.80

Human Rights Watch interviews with 21 Zimbabweans in Harare and Bulawayo in February 2008 corroborated these reports. Two-and-a-half years after the evictions, many Zimbabweans have yet to recover and continue to live in complete destitution, having lost everything: shelter, work, food, health, and education for their children.

A 37-year-old woman from Harare with four children told a story that is typical of many others interviewed by Human Rights Watch:

Before the tsunami81 I was living in a two-roomed cottage in Mbare National with my four children. I sold tomatoes and drinks in the streets and I had money for food and rent and for school fees. The tsunami destroyed our rooms. We had nowhere to go. My children stopped going to school. We slept for six months in the open at the Mbare-Musika bus station. There were many other people there too. I gave birth to my son in the street outside the nearby hospital because I could not pay for the registration fee. I tried to sell things in the street but the police stopped us and chased us and stole our things. I had to stop my children from suffering so I started to work as a prostitute. I made very little money. Sometimes they paid me with drinks or with a little food.

I bought some sticks and plastic sheets and built a small shelter on wasteland in Mbare. We still live there now with many other families. The police come at least two times a month. They burn our plastic sheets and ask us why we are staying there. Every time I have to make more money to buy new sheets. Sometimes I don’t have enough and we sleep under the sky. If it rains, we can’t sleep but sometimes I find a small piece of plastic which I put on my children’s blankets. When the police come they beat people. They have beaten me, all over my body. The police stopped burning and beating people last month [January 2008]. I think this is because of the elections. They want us to vote for them.82

In 2006 Human Rights Watch reported on how the evictions and the crackdown on the informal economy had made individuals both more vulnerable to infection and less able to access fee-based health care.83 Interviews with PLWHA in February 2008 suggest that for many the dire circumstances have not changed.

A 42-year-old man living with HIV explained how he had tried to survive after the evictions by continuing to sell fruit and vegetables, but that he had been arrested and fined at least 12 times in 2007. Each time the police confiscated his goods. By the time he was due for a Cluster of Differentiation 4 (CD4) test in October 2007 he was told that the test fee was Z$10 million (US$10)84 and that it would take at least six months after registration to be tested. As he was not able to afford the fee he did not register for the test, leading to uncertainty about the state of his health and the possible need to access ART.85

Similarly a 41-year-old woman living with HIV, who has five children and who lost her home and ability to trade because of the evictions and the ban on informal trading, explained how her HIV infected husband died of tuberculosis in early 2006 because he had been unable to pay for treatment. She said that she was now unable to pay for basic medical consultations and medication (CTX) or for a CD4 test for her three-year-old HIV infected boy. She said it was impossible for her to afford the cost of a CD4 test for her son.86

A 75-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch:

I was renting out two cottages. I used the money for food, water, school fees for my grandchildren and to keep my house up. During the tsunami, they made us tear down the cottages and then they charged us fees to remove the rubble. Now I rent out three rooms in my house and I live in the one other room without a roof with my daughters and grandchildren. I had seven children. Five have died from AIDS. I looked after each one until they died. I have two daughters left. One is sick and her husband just died of AIDS. I don’t know if she’ll be OK. Some of my grandchildren have died of AIDS too. I was taking care of one and his mother came and took him away and said “I’m not going to let him stay with you and die like all of your children.”87

She went on to describe how the imposition of health fees has affected her ability to care for her other 35 year-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with mental illness:

She has been hospitalized a number of times. Sometimes they prescribe medicine but then she refuses to take it and becomes manic. She’ll get into a terrible rage. Finally I’d be able to get her back on her medicine and things would get a little better. She was able to work a little. But then in December 2007 they said that I would have to buy the medicine. I don’t have any money. How can I buy her medicine? I can’t. Now things are so much worse. She is filling the house with trash, with dirt, with anything she finds on the street. The house is overflowing with trash.88

Explanations for the Evictions

The official explanation

A leading report analyzing the evictions identified nine separate official explanations given by the Zimbabwean authorities:

[t]o stem disorderly or chaotic urbanisation and… problems [preventing] enforcement of national and local authority by-laws [concerning] service delivery [of] water, electricity, sewage and refuse removal; to minimise the threat of major disease outbreaks…; to stop economic crimes especially illegal black market transactions in foreign currency; to eliminate the parallel market and fight economic sabotage; to reorganise micro-, small and medium enterprises; to reduce high crime levels by targeting organised crime syndicates; to arrest social ills, among them prostitution, which promotes the spread of HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases; to stop the hoarding of consumer commodities, and other commodities in short supply; and to reverse the environmental damage and threat to water sources caused by inappropriate and unlawful urban settlements.89

A senior Zimbabwean government representative in South Africa blamed the urban poor and informal traders for deteriorating standards of health, housing, and other services in Zimbabwe, as well as for the spiraling crime rate, hoarding, and disappearance of basic commodities from shops, and for a swelling black market including for foreign currency. The Zimbabwean representative argued that all of these problems cost the government considerable revenue and undermined the country’s economic turnaround.90

The alternative explanation

The political context of the evictions and their timing cast doubt on the official explanation. Indeed, both credibly point to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)91 conducting the evictions to weaken actual and potential support among the poorest people living in Zimbabwe’s cities for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). ZANU-PF perceived the urban poor as supporting the MDC and almost certainly would have seen the evictions as a way to assert ZANU-PF’s political control over the areas where they were concentrated.92 There were also a number of possible secondary benefits for ZANU-PF.

During the March 31, 2005 elections, ZANU-PF won the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution at will, thanks to extensive support in and control of local councils in the rural areas. However, the MDC won 26 of 30 parliamentary seats in major towns and cities throughout the country and controlled local councils in the country’s six largest cities (except for Harare where the government had disbanded the local council in 2004 to replace it with a ZANU-PF commission).

In April 2005 Zimbabwe’s urban areas were, in political terms, the last part of the country that had not fallen under ZANU-PF’s full political control. People living in the poorest areas of Zimbabwe’s cities undoubtedly contributed in large part to the MDC’s success. Given the increasing economic hardship which they faced as a result of the rapidly deteriorating economy, ZANU-PF is likely to have identified them either as actual opposition supporters or as the people most likely to cause civil unrest in the face of ever-increasing economic discontent.

In the build-up to the evictions there were two incidents in particular which indicated that a broader political crackdown was going to take place. During the first half of April 2005, police arrested 100 MDC supporters in a number of different urban areas. On May 11, 2005, police beat up and forcibly dispersed residents of Harare's low-income suburb of Mabvuku who were protesting a lack of water during the previous three days.93

According to an interview conducted by the International Crisis Group with a senior Zimbabwean state security official on July 5, 2005, shortly before the evictions began on May 25, 2005, “[T]he Minister of State Security Didymus Mutasa warned the government of the possibility of spontaneous uprisings in urban areas due to food shortages and other economic problems.”94

ZANU-PF’s calculation of what would happen after the evictions is almost certain to have focused on the fact that a large number of the urban poor had originally come from the rural areas as a result of the failed fast-track land reform process that began in 2000. Before their move to the cities, they had formed part of the vast majority of rural Zimbabweans who voted for ZANU-PF as a result of ZANU-PF’s control of traditional chiefs, youth militias, and other patronage structures in those areas. In contrast, during their time in the urban areas, many had switched allegiance to the opposition MDC with its strong urban support-base.

ZANU-PF is likely to have calculated that returning these people to their roots would once again bring them under the control of the ruling party. Additionally, with their businesses destroyed, with no other place to go, and with the slump in agricultural production in the rural areas, ZANU-PF will almost certainly have calculated that once returned to the rural areas they would be easier to control through the use of government-controlled food aid.95

On June 22, 2005, just over a month into the evictions, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa told the Zimbabwean Parliament that the government would relocate people displaced by the evictions “back to where they come from.”96 He said that the authorities had been urging urban internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the holding camps—closed camps where thousands of the evictees were taken—to go back to their country roots.97 In December 2005 Human Rights Watch reported on how the Zimbabwean authorities used various methods to forcibly relocate people to the rural areas, including police violence and other forms of harassment and manipulation of food aid, to encourage people to leave the urban areas.98

A secondary reason for ZANU-PF to carry out the evictions was to revive the agricultural sector that the government’s fast-track land reform had helped to destroy. On July 3, 2005, a senior official in the Ministry of Lands said that “our preoccupation now is to get the commercial agriculture farming sector working.”99 A key element of such a policy would be to ensure a reliable supply of agricultural workers, leading Zimbabwe’s Deputy Minister of Local Government, Public Works and Urban Development Morris Sakabuya to describe the evictions as an attempt to “resuscitate rural areas.”100

A final ironic twist is that in carrying out the evictions, ZANU-PF invoked the very same laws the white minority government of Ian Smith had used in the 1970s and 1980s to demolish homes and prevent a possible uprising on behalf of majority rule in Zimbabwe, led by Robert Mugabe.

The Government’s Failure to Assist People Targeted by the Evictions

In August 2005 the Zimbabwean government responded to the UN report by arguing that the government had put in place a plan (called “Operation Gairkai/Hlalani Kuhle” or “Better Life”) to provide alternative accommodation to those affected by the evictions. The UN report had concluded that a total of 92,460 households were destroyed. In May 2006 the Zimbabwean government gave evidence to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, that 3,325 housing units had been completed and made available to those affected.101 This, however, still left 89,135 households with no alternative housing.102

In 2007 UN-Habitat reported:

[A]t least 20 percent of the houses were earmarked for civil servants, police and soldiers, while some victims of Operation Murambatsvina were provided small plots of land without assistance with which to build homes. Furthermore, many of the homes designated as “built” are not finished, do not have water and sanitation facilities, and have not been allocated… Even if a victim of Operation Murambatsvina was able to access a home through the highly corrupt allocation process, the majority of victims would not be able to afford the homes.103

In December 2005 and August 2006 Human Rights Watch reported on the Zimbabwean government’s complete failure to respond to the needs of the 700,000 evictees it had displaced.104 The government failed to recognize the scale of the crisis, made no attempt to locate or register the evictees, provided them with no food, shelter, or other form of assistance, and provided no special assistance to particularly vulnerable groups such as people living with HIV or AIDS (PLWHA) and female-headed households.105 Furthermore, the government obstructed the provision of international humanitarian assistance to the displaced evictees and even arrested those who had received such assistance from local and international agencies.106 The 2005 report also documented how, in the absence of any other government assistance, the government’s ban on informal trading made it impossible for those targeted by the evictions to help themselves.107


The UN report rejected the Zimbabwean government’s explanations for the evictions and concluded that Operation Murambatsvina had violated a wide range of the evictees’ rights under the Zimbabwean Constitution and under international human rights and humanitarian law.108

A legal opinion prepared by a leading UK barrister in cooperation with a Zimbabwean and an international NGO concludes that the Zimbabwean authorities may have committed a crime against humanity prosecutable under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court because of the way it carried out the evictions.109

66 United Nations (UN), “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe to Assess the Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina by the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlement Issues in Zimbabwe,” July 18, 2005, (accessed March 3, 2008).

67 Ibid.

68 ActionAid’s survey in the aftermath of the evictions found that 70 percent of people who had been working in the informal economy had lost shelter and 76 percent had lost their livelihoods. ActionAid International, “Burning down the house to kill a rat?” July 2005,, p. 71 (accessed March 4, 2008).

69 International Crisis Group, “Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina: The Tipping Point?” August 17, 2005, (accessed March 4, 2008).

70 International Labor Organization statistics cited in Human Rights Watch, No Bright Future, Government Failures, Human Rights Abuses and Squandered Progress in the Fight against AIDS in Zimbabwe, vol 18, no. 5(A), July 2006,,5, p. 14.

71 UN, “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe,” p. 24.

72 UN, “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe,” pp. 23-24.

73 Under international law, evictions become unlawful and thereby “forced evictions” if, among other things, the state responsible for the evictions fails to provide alternative housing or other means of protection for those it has evicted. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR), General Comment 7, (accessed March 5, 2008), para 3.

74 UN, “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe,” p. 24.

75 UN, “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe,” p. 45.

76 People indirectly affected by the evictions are looked at below in Chapter VI.

77 Human Rights Watch, Clear the Filth: Mass Evictions and Demolitions in Zimbabwe, September 2005,; and Evicted and Forsaken: Internally Displaced Persons in the Aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina, vol. 17, no. 16(A), December 2005, UN, “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe.” ActionAid International, “Burning Down the House to Kill a Rat?”

78 ICG, “Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina,” p. 3.

79 UN, “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe,” p. 71.

80 Human Rights Watch, ‘Clear the Filth’: Evicted and Forsaken.

81 Many Zimbabweans refer to the evictions as “the tsunami.”

82 Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, February 15, 2008.

83 Human Rights Watch, No Bright Future.

84 In October 2007 the exchange rate was Z$1 million to US$1: (accessed May 13, 2008).

85 Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, February 16, 2008.

86 Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, February 16, 2008.

87  Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, February 16, 2008.

88 Ibid.

89 Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), “Operation Murambatsvina: A Crime Against Humanity,” May 2007, (accessed March 6, 208), pp. 23-24.

90 ICG, “Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina,” p. 3.

91 ZANU-PF is Zimbabwe’s ruling party, led under that name by Robert Mugabe since 1988.

92 This section draws extensively on evidence and arguments set out by the International Crisis Group in its report “Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina,” pp. 4-5. In previous reports Human Rights Watch has referred to this and similar explanations. In Clear the Filth, Human Rights Watch noted at p. 14 that Zimbabwean human rights lawyers and NGOs argued that  the evictions “were an act of retribution against those who voted for the opposition during the… March 2005 elections,” or that they “were designed to prevent mass uprisings against deepening food insecurity and worsening economic conditions.” In Evicted and Forsaken, Human Rights Watch noted at p. 10 that commentary on ZANU-PF’s motivations for the evictions included “to debilitate the urban poor, force them to move to rural areas, and prevent mass uprisings against the deteriorating political and economic conditions in high density urban areas.”

93 ICG, “Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina,” p 4.

94 Ibid, p.4. The report goes on to note that “in the wake of recent popular revolutions triggered by flawed elections in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan and the condemnation Zimbabwe's elections produced in major Western capitals, the ruling party may have feared that its foreign critics would more actively pursue regime change in Harare and that the restive urban population would provide the tinder.”

95 On the long history of ZANU-PF’s politicisation of food aid, see Human Rights Watch, All Over Again; The Politics of Food Assistance in Zimbabwe, vol. 20 no. 2(A), August 2004,; Human Rights Watch, Not Eligible: the Politicization of Food in Zimbabwe, vol. 15 no. 17(A), October 2003,

96 ICG, “Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina,” p. 5.

97 Ibid.

98 Human Rights Watch, Evicted and Forsaken, pp. 32-35.

99 ICG, “Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina,” p. 5.

100 Ibid.

101 COHRE and ZHLR, “Operation Murambatsvina: A Crime Against Humanity,” p. 22.

102 This was confirmed by UN-Habitat. UN-Habitat, “Forced Evictions – Toward Solutions?, Second Report of the Advisory Group on Forced Evictions to Executive Director of UN-Habitat,” 2007, (accessed March 6, 2008), p. 77.

103 Ibid.

104 Human Rights Watch, Evicted and Forsaken, pp. 15-37; and No Bright Future, pp. 23-28.

105 Human Rights Watch, Evicted and Forsaken, pp. 16-21; and No Bright Future, pp. 24-30.

106 Human Rights Watch, Evicted and Forsaken, pp. 21-24.

107 Human Rights Watch, Evicted and Forsaken, pp. 31-32.

108 UN, “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission,” pp. 62-63.

109 COHRE and ZHLR, “Operation Murambatsvina: A Crime Against Humanity.”