Thupeyo Muleya, Beitbridge Bureau
It’s around 1pm on a Monday afternoon and in a Johannesburg apartment is a restless Zimbabwean couple conversing with a tone of despair. Velempini (not his real name) is pacing around the living room, while his wife, Maidei (not her real name) is sitting on the couch folding both hands.The couple has been waiting in vain anticipating to receive a call from Mdu, a cross-border transport operator (Malayitsha), whom they contracted to smuggle their six-year-old daughter to the south of the Limpopo River.
It being a December school holiday, like most Zimbabwean couples staying in South Africa, they decided to bring their only daughter to the ‘greener pastures’.
The child stays with Velempini’s parents in Luveve Suburb, Bulawayo. Although both parents are legally employed in the neighbouring country, as a teacher and a nurse respectively, their Grade 1 daughter has no passport.
As per their agreement with Mdu, they paid R2 000 for him to facilitate the child’s illegal movement to Mzansi (South Africa), the previous Friday night via Beitbridge border post.
However, Mdu runs into trouble along a footpath under the New Limpopo Bridge, which links the two countries, while smuggling the couple’s child along with 10 other border jumpers.
They come across a wounded hippopotamus which then attacks them killing two men on the spot. The group disperses in all directions, and Mdu flees living behind, Velempini’s daughter and two other toddlers – aged four and five.
Terrified by the smell of death, the children also flee in a different directions and hide behind a shrub. Mdu last had contact with Velempini on Friday night upon his arrival in Beitbridge town, and since then he has vanished into thin air.
Now the couple has tried everything other avenue to reach the Malayitsha without success. Since Saturday they hardly sleep wondering where the transporter could be with their daughter.
Following the hippo attack, the two men’s bodies were recovered while the three toddlers were picked from their hiding place by a search team. On the other hand, Mdu continues with his journey on Saturday, without bothering to look for the three children.
Mdu fears that he will be arrested for facilitating illegal migration if he approaches the Department of Immigration or the police. In Johannesburg, Mdu changes contact numbers to avoid questions by relatives of the people he was illegally transporting.
He also moves out of his Thembisa rented house in a huff in Johannesburg and goes to stay in Dieplsoot. While the deceased were conveyed to Musina government mortuary, the traumatised children are taken to South Africa’s Department of Social Services for further management.
They are further taken to a children’s home in the same town, while efforts to trace their guardians are made. Velempini and Maidei are reunited with their daughter following two months of through investigations and vetting by authorities from both countries.
The couple’s case is but a drop in the ocean. There are more challenges and dangers associated with child smuggling and illegal migration between Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Co-chairperson of the Zimbabwe-South Africa Cross-border Coordination Committee for Unaccompanied and Separated Migrant Children (CBCCUSMC), Mr Craig Nkomo said between January and April, more than 150 children were intercepted at the Beitbridge Border Post and around Limpopo province while being transported to either countries.
He made the revelations during the forum’s quarterly meeting held in Beitbridge.
The meeting was attended by officials from the two nation’s socials services departments, immigration, police, non-governmental organisations and human rights lawyers among others.
Mr Nkomo said they had roped in a number of border stakeholders to deal with issues of child smuggling. He said cases of irregular migration of minors were rife during school holidays.
“Most of the intercepted children are from Bulawayo and Chiredzi and their destination in South Africa is mainly Johannesburg in Gauteng Province. “In general the largest number was intercepted in the month of January, while the movement was significantly lower in April,” he said.
Investigations by the social services department revealed that most of the children would be visiting their parents in South Africa. Zimbabwean authorities had, however, adopted a zero tolerance to the smuggling of children and other illegal immigrants.
Mr Nkomo said authorities were impounding vehicles of those facilitating irregular migration. “Besides having the vehicles impounded the culprits are being sent to court for prosecution.
“It has also become apparent that in some cases irregular migration among these children is a result of peer pressure,” he said.
The authorities have also scaled up awareness campaigns in the high migrant sending areas to reduce the vice of child smuggling between the two countries to 30 per year.
“We need to double our efforts as stakeholders in addressing the root causes to this trend.
“It is pleasing that since we created this forum around 2015, cases of children being deported from South Africa together with adults have stopped,” said Mr Nkomo.
The committee’s South African co-chair, Mr Robert Mukwevho, said they had 79 unaccompanied minors who were being kept at child and youth care centres dotted around Limpopo Province.
He said the majority were Zimbabweans adding that they were working on reuniting the children with their parents. “We are working on getting court orders for us to keep the children for three months while we trace their parents.
“In case we don’t find them in that period we apply to keep them for two years while we exhausts all avenues to trace the relatives,” he said.
Mr Mukwevho said in some instances they were enrolling those of school going age into learning institutions, though they still had challenges in securing places in the absence of documentation.
He said they were engaging the lawyers for human rights and the department of education over the issue.
Zimbabwe’s Consul General to South Africa, Mr Batiraishe Mukonoweshuro said; “Children who are trafficked have been on the increase through our borders. The consulate assists in positive identification of the children and tracing of parents.”
He said most of the smuggled children don’t have documentation hence the need for the consulate to interview and ascertain their nationalities. “There is a liaison between the consulate and social welfare departments from both countries. We also interface with other security related departments.
“We want to urge parents to ensure that they and their children are documented before travelling to other countries and in addition they must avoid exposing children to the dangers of illegal migration.”
It is estimated that there are over 200 illegal crossing points along the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers which separate the country from Botswana and South Africa.
Headman Lemohang Nare Mahopolo who stays along the Zimbabwe – Botswana and South Africa borders, said it was sad that some parents were exposing their children to criminals along illegal crossing points.
“We witnessed a number of drowning incidents during the rainy season when border jumpers tried to cross to either Botswana or South Africa,” he said.
“I want to urge traditional leaders and other members of the community to relay critical information relating to illegal migration to the police.” Criminal activities along the border line are worsened by the unavailability of communication facilities and patrol roads.
“We urge Government to look into that issue as a matter of urgency, if we are to reduce cases of irregular migration,” said Mahopolo. Beitbridge Rural District Council chief executive Mr Peter Moyo urged authorities to review penalties for those caught facilitating illegal migration.
“We feel the fines are not deterrent enough considering that these people expose children to dangerous wild animals and drowning and at times sexual abuse,”he said.
Mr Moyo said they were working with other stakeholders in educating people living along the borders on the effects of border jumping. He said though most of the migrants were from outside the district, they were getting assistants from villagers living along the border.
The assistant regional immigration officer in charge of Beitbridge, Mr Notius Tarisai said they were periodically carrying out joint patrols with their South African counterparts to reduce cases of border jumping.
“We also hold monthly and quarterly, inter-border meetings to exchange notes on best strategies to reduce irregular migration as we strive to make the border post user friendly, ”said Mr Tarisai. The problem of irregular migration needs a multifaceted approach and change in attitude by both governments and its citizens.
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