MUTARE, ZIMBABWE — When Kundai graduated with a master’s degree from a local university, she did not imagine staying unemployed for five years. Even more unexpected was the fact that her path to forging a career as a health worker and getting financial freedom would come by way of marrying her nephew.
Despite attending several interviews since 2018, no job offer came her way. “Every time they would ask for work experience, but I had none because no organization ever gave me a chance after completing my first degree,” says Kundai, who asked to use one name for fear her story could jeopardize her employment prospects.
She started taking odd jobs she came across: cleaning people’s houses, gardening and babysitting. One day late last year, a friend told Kundai she was moving to the United Kingdom after a relative got her a job. The two kept in touch, with Kundai’s friend giving her updates on job opportunities in the U.K.
Kundai started looking for work in the U.K. and soon began her own application process to enable her to relocate. “I immediately saw a bright future for me abroad. In fact, I said it was better doing odd jobs there than enduring years of unemployment, regardless of my high qualifications here in Zimbabwe,” she says.
The process to get her visa took almost eight months. One requirement was to submit a certificate of sponsorship, a crucial document for foreigners seeking to work in the U.K. “The journey is quite expensive, especially the certificate of sponsorship … which is being sold even though we hear it is supposed to be free,” Kundai says.
The certificate is an electronic record that proves that a company in the U.K. is responsible for the employee during the duration of their visa’s validity in the country. It also shows how many work hours the prospective employee has been allocated and proves the company will have a job ready for them upon their arrival. From July 2022 to June this year, a total of 271,523 sponsorships were issued from the U.K., an increase of 57% from the previous year.
To get a certificate, Kundai parted with 5,000 British pounds (over 6,100 United States dollars) and had to ask relatives for financial assistance to finalize her application.
Kundai is one among thousands of Zimbabweans leaving the country for the U.K. in search of better job opportunities, many of them in the health care sector. Often, it takes an individual dozens of applications to get a free certificate of sponsorship. A faster way of getting one, though, is by working with agents based in the U.K. and Zimbabwe. In their desperation to relocate, many applicants resort to dubious means to get this document. This includes getting into fake marriages or marriages of convenience to halve the cost of buying a certificate from middlemen.
To keep up to date with what was happening, Kundai joined a WhatsApp group of people who want to migrate abroad. She saw advertisements from people looking for partners to marry in the group and remembered she had a nephew almost her age who had also been unlucky in the Zimbabwean job market. That is when the idea to marry him struck her. The ceremony was held in March.
“I thought it would be better if we had a court marriage than the church marriage, which is too public and involves too many people,” she says. “For me this meant I would have helped a family member the same way our family had chipped in with money needed for the application process.”
Rise of Zimbabweans moving to the U.K.
In 2020, the U.K. government introduced a health and care worker visa which has made it easier for people to migrate for work with the National Health Services, an NHS supplier or in adult social care. The visa was created to provide a much-needed boost for social care in response to the coronavirus pandemic pressures on the U.K. health care sector. As the number of work sponsorship visas granted by the U.K. soared in 2021 and 2022, the number of Zimbabweans granted these health and care worker visas also ballooned.
In 2021, about 1% of all work sponsorship visas were given to Zimbabweans; in 2022, that grew to 4%, and in the first three months of 2023 it jumped to 7%. In the health and care worker category, Zimbabweans are the third largest visa holders this year, after India and Nigeria. These figures are a 418% jump from the previous year for Zimbabwe, a testament to the growing desire for people to migrate.
But moving to the U.K. is not cheap. One of the highest costs attached to the process is obtaining the sponsorship certificate. High demand for the document has birthed a black market where they are sold for between 3,500 and 7,000 pounds (about 4,200 to 8,500 U.S. dollars). This amount is out of reach for most Zimbabweans who are either unemployed or have low-wage jobs.
Those selling the certificates justify the costs by offering to provide accommodations and other benefits, such as food, internet and heating, for the first months of a successful applicant’s stay in the U.K.
Besides having sponsorship from a U.K. employer, applicants must also take an English test, take a tuberculosis test, have a valid driver’s license and have a job offer.
The desperation to relocate has seen some applicants get duped by agents. Others have found their way to the U.K. only to discover they have been sold certificates without work hours; they remain unemployed for months until their sponsors resolve the problem. There are also those that have arrived in the U.K. only to find their sponsors are no longer licensed to take them, despite paying exorbitant fees, leaving them stuck in a foreign land with no source of income to pay for rent and utilities. Those with canceled sponsors are given 60 days to find new ones.
In search of sponsorship
Tapfumaneyi Soko is one of the unlucky ones who hasn’t been able to realize his dream to move to “chando,” a colloquial Shona term used by locals to mean “the land of cold and snow.” He started the process over a year ago. Having secured all other requirements, he looked for connections to get a sponsorship certificate in the same WhatsApp group Kundai used. Someone directed him to a person who was selling one. He had heard that the certificates should be free, but like everyone else, he decided to buy one as he wasn’t sure how to access the free ones.
“I sold some household property and second-hand car to raise the 3,500 British pounds I was asked to pay. I even borrowed some of the money with the intention of returning it once I had settled in the U.K.,” Soko says.
He says the alleged agent told him that once the number of workers required by the U.K. government’s health care department was reached, the visa application would be shut down. This put him in a state of panic and he gave in to the pressure. He did all he could to get the money, paying the supposed agent cash with the assurance that he would have the certificate within a week’s time. A week went by and he started getting excuses about delays in processing the document until it ran into many weeks. “In the end, the number was either no longer reachable or would go unanswered and eventually disconnected,” Soko says.
Soko believes that several other people in the WhatsApp group, who had attested to being assisted by the agent, were also in on the scam.
Zimbabwe’s reaction to U.K. migration
Demand for those seeking to relocate to the U.K. remains high despite the Zimbabwe government’s introduction of incentives to reduce the number of workers leaving for greener pastures.
Addressing Zimbabwe’s parliamentarians in May, then-Minister of Health and Childcare Constantino Chiwenga talked about the gravity of health care workers leaving the country for the U.K. The average attrition rate for health workers is around 5.2% per year, he said, being higher for nurses (6.6%) and dieticians (14.3%). The total number of health workers on government payrolls declined by 9.2%, from 50,100 in 2019 to 45,500 in 2021, due to an increase in worker migration. The ministry was trying to reduce the attrition, he added.
Among the incentives introduced to get workers to stay in Zimbabwe are buses to transport health care workers, staff housing and pay raises, says ministry spokesman Donald Mujiri.
All this is taking place in the context of a clampdown by the U.K. on legal paths for migration.
In March, the U.K. added Zimbabwe to a “red list” for health and social care personnel, meaning that active recruitment from Zimbabwe is currently not permitted. And in May, a restriction was passed on international students bringing family members.
Despite those efforts, there is evidence Zimbabweans still left their country, though some complain that they have certificates of sponsorship without assigned work hours — meaning they can get to the U.K. but can’t work until that is resolved.
In March, the World Health Organization released an updated “health workforce support and safeguards list” of 55 countries, including Zimbabwe, where health services are threatened by the migration of skilled personnel. WHO recommends that such movement be managed by government-to-government agreements.
Although the buying of sponsorship certificates in the black market continues, some people have been deported for doing so and others denied visas for having fake ones that cannot be found in the U.K. database.
In a tweet, the U.K. government gave guidelines to show how to detect a scam and noted that charging money for a certificate of sponsorship is against the law.
Police have arrested people who sell or facilitate the sale of certificates and those that provide false bank statements. No arrests have been made regarding fake marriages.
Some cases of fraud have appeared before the courts. Recently, a couple was charged in Zimbabwe with 46 counts of fraud between August 2022 and May this year. The suspects were alleged to have conned many diaspora hopefuls out of money amounting to 134,552 U.S. dollars (about 49 million Zimbabwean dollars) after posing as agents of a company involved in facilitating job placements in Canada, the U.K. and Ireland. The processing fee was pegged at 4,000 U.S. dollars (about 1.4 million Zimbabwean dollars) per person.
In a press statement in May, Zimbabwe Republic Police assistant commissioner Paul Nyathi implored members of the public to exercise due diligence before making any payments to individuals and agencies purporting to facilitate job offers abroad.
For Soko, the warning came too late and his future prospects remain unclear. He says he cannot report his loss to the police, since he knew that what he was doing was illegal, but desperation led him to take this route. He says he regrets it all because he lost his hard-earned money to the scam.
“I am still in Zimbabwe seven months later and have to repay the loan I got. … Starting the process again will take a miracle as my tuberculosis test and English test have to be redone because they have expired,” Soko says.
Kundai, however, is in a state of “marital bliss,” having relocated to the U.K. with her nephew and getting a job in a care home. She says she does not regret her decision. “Actually I am proud that I managed to help my sister’s family by bringing my nephew to U.K.,” she says.
Evidence Chenjerai is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mutare, Zimbabwe