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AFRICA-ZIMBABWE: Children living in borderland limbo
August 31, 2005
- Lucas Mavhube, 17, sat hiding under a clump of bushes in the dark,
a few kilometres from the border gates at Beitbridge, Zimbabwe,
waiting for an opportunity to slip through the fence that separates
his country from South Africa.
"I waited and waited. My time came when I saw some soldiers go past
the security [gate], late in the night - the guards were distracted,
and I then slipped through." He is now in the South African border
town of Musina, scratching a living as an "undocumented migrant."
Mavhube is among scores of Zimbabwean children who risk life and
limb to slip through the security cordon on either side of the fence
and cross the crocodile-infested Limpopo river that marks the border,
motivated by the need to find jobs to uplift their families and
a better life for themselves.
An aid worker with a local NGO that provides support to migrant
Zimbabwean children said, "After that [crossing the river] there
is a 12 km trek to the town of Musina. They try to keep to the bushes,
away from the prying eyes of authority." Mavhube was found wandering
in the streets by one of the NGO's volunteers.
After his mother died in 1997, Mavhube could no longer afford his
school fees in Chiredzi, a town in Masvingo province in southern
Zimbabwe. He did odd jobs when he could, while his grandmother,
a vegetable vendor, supported three younger siblings.
"But there is no food now - the situation got very desperate," he
said. "I thought I should leave so I can earn something in South
Africa to help my family."
Zimbabwe is going through a severe economic crisis and facing serious
food shortages due to recurring droughts and the government's fast-track
land redistribution programme, which disrupted agricultural production
and slashed export earnings.
Mavhube and five other Zimbabwean teenagers do odd jobs around Musina
in an attempt to earn enough money to get to another South African
city, preferably Johannesburg, where they think there are better
"Often, children have other siblings, relatives or friends working
in South African cities and they just pass through Musina. But children
like Mavhube, who do not know anyone else in South Africa, hang
around in Musina or Makhado [a neighbouring town]. We try to provide
them with shelter, a place to bathe in, wash their clothes, play,
study and plan their next move," an aid worker explained.
The NGO is aware of at least 100 Zimbabwean children who have crossed
the border illegally since the beginning of this year. "These are
children that we came to know of - there are probably many more
who were smuggled in unnoticed," the aid worker said.
According to the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration
(IOM), at least 2,000 Zimbabweans are deported from South Africa
via Beitbridge every week.
"In 2003 the South African authorities deported 55,753 Zimbabweans
without official documents. Figures for this year are likely to
be higher, with 24,000 irregular Zimbabwean migrants being deported
between January and March alone. Deportees are both male and female,
and aged from in their teens and upwards, but the reason for deportation
is always the lack of legal documentation," said IOM spokeswoman
"It is easier for teenage girls to cross the border - they often
offer sex in exchange for transport to truck or combi [minibus]
drivers - girls even as young as 14 years. It is also more difficult
for authorities to track them down, as once they make it across
the border they assume married identities, but who will marry a
teenage boy?" remarked an aid worker.
There were few job opportunities for unskilled Zimbabweans back
home, remarked Elias Gwamure, 16. "None of us could finish school,
as we could not afford it, so there is little we can do."
Many teenagers in Beitbridge are waiting for a lift - preferably
unnoticed - across the border. With their thumbs in the air, they
line the sides of the highway through the town and almost 30 km
beyond, while scores of adults and children sit at the petrol stations
in town, begging for any foreign currency that could help buy them
a trip out.
"I don't have a passport - most of us don't. Getting a lift is the
only way out," said a waiting Zimbabwean teenager. They sit for
hours and even days in the blazing sun, after having made it to
Beitbridge from towns as far as 300 km away; they live off offerings
from passers-by, or sell bags of oranges for local farmers.
Many of them have already had a brush with the South African authorities.
"Once caught, the Zimbabweans are transported to Beitbridge. They
are usually denied access to their belongings after being caught,
and so often arrive empty-handed and needing to bathe, eat, rest
and receive counselling," said Simmonds. According to IOM, many
deportees often do not have enough funds to either attempt another
crossing or return home, and usually remain in town.
In collaboration with the Zimbabwean and South African government,
IOM is to set up a reception and support centre at the Beitbridge
border in October, to provide humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwean
migrants deported from South Africa.
"The reception centre, funded by the British government's Department
for International Development (DFID), will help the deported migrants
with transportation, food rations, basic healthcare, and information
on HIV/AIDS and irregular migration issues, including human trafficking
and smuggling," said Simmonds.
A tripartite dialogue between IOM and the ministries of home affairs
in South Africa and Zimbabwe on issues of cross border migration
will also be initiated, she added.
Although there are no reliable data on the number of undocumented
Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe
estimated that last year 1.2 million Zimbabweans were living across
* The names of the children have been changed to protect their
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