Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans who have left their economically-ravaged homeland for neighboring countries either legally or illegally are not seeking refugee status but only a means to earn a livelihood.
The migration is huge and the exact numbers are hard to ascertain, but according to official figures in Harare, more than 3 million Zimbabweans live overseas.
Meanwhile, illegal Zimbabwean immigrants are expelled from South Africa, Botswana or Mozambique every day, countries where they had gone to seek a chance to feed themselves and their families.
Many return only to be re-expelled.
Zimbabwe, led by President Robert Mugabe since its 1980 independence from Britain, is facing the worst crisis in its history.
It has in recent years been in the throes of political, economic and social instability with sky-high inflation, recurring food shortages and an unemployment rate of nearly 70 percent.
South Africa, Zimbabwe's southern neighbor and the economic powerhouse of the continent, has since the end of apartheid in 1994 attracted immigrants in hordes, including people from its northern neighbor.
Last year, 55,000 Zimbabweans living illegally in South Africa were expelled to their country.
"Those people who claim asylum among all the Zimbabweans that come into the country are a small minority. Most of the people say they have come to make some money to go back to feed their family," said Melita Sunjic from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Refugee status is hard to obtain.
Uptil September last year, only nine Zimbabweans had been granted refugee status. There have been a total of about 1,500 applications seeking asylum and these are being examined.
Similarly, in Mozambique, the number of Zimbabweans with refugee status is close to zero.
According to some observers, the low numbers of those seeking asylum or refugee status could be linked to the perception that many of the neighboring countries would be unwilling to grant Zimbabweans refugee status as it might be construed as their disapproval of Mugabe's authoritarian regime.
"The South African government has been unwilling to consider [Zimbabwe] as presenting the conditions that would warrant refugee status being granted to its nationals," Graeme Gotz and Loren Landau said in a study published Thursday on Forced Migrants in the New Johannesburg.
"Nationals from Zimbabwe have, therefore, almost always been regarded as economic migrants and ineligible for asylum, even when they have been victims of systematic rape, torture and economic deprivation," they said.
The economic migrations have sparked tensions in countries such as impoverished and sparsely-populated Botswana, where according to estimates some 125,000 Zimbabweans have been arriving every month to escape economic problems at home.
They have been blamed by authorities for an upswing in crime.
Zimbabwe in May condemned the "barbaric" use of corporal punishment by Botswana against Zimbabweans caught on the wrong side of the law following reports that Zimbabweans are harassed, flogged or attacked.
But Harare, knowing that it can do little to stem the tide of nationals leaving the country, has tried to put the situation to its advantage, overtly asking "economic migrants" to send money to their families through the official channel.
Zimbabwe sorely lacks foreign currency reserves and there is a huge gap between the official and black market exchange rates.