In March 2020, a group of Ethiopians were arrested in Gwanda, about 130km south of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city.
According to the police, the illegal immigrants were on their way to South Africa and had been hiding from the authorities when villagers reported suspicious activity in one homestead.
Traffickers have long had syndicates transporting Zimbabweans without travel documents to South Africa. But in recent years, the networks have upped their game, trafficking people from other countries.
Gwanda is a small gold-mining town that lies on the highway to the Beitbridge border post, Zimbabwe’s gateway to South Africa.
The distance between Ethiopia and Zimbabwe is more than 3 300km, highlighting the desperation and determination of the immigrants and their traffickers to use Zimbabwe as a transit point.
For perspective, by air, the journey from Addis Ababa to Harare is four hours, 20 minutes.
By road, it can seem the journey takes forever. When the immigrants were found at the Gwanda homestead, they were suffering from acute dehydration and fatigue. Human traffickers are known to have no compassion for their human cargo.
In January last year, another group of Somali and Ethiopian refugees were netted by the police while also being assisted to illegally cross into South Africa by the traffickers.
Earlier in 2018, a group of Kenyans and Somalis were also picked up in Gwanda on their way to South Africa.
With its fair share of problems that have seen a continued eagerness by locals to leave Zimbabwe, the country remains attractive for Africans fleeing civil strife in their homelands, thanks to what observers say are lax local immigration checks and border controls between Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Although many people use Zimbabwe as a lay-by before they proceed to their favoured destinations, some have settled as refugees.
Catholic nun Mildness Chinake is a project director of the Jesuit Refugee Services at the Tongogara Refugee Camp in the Manicaland province, which lies on the border with Mozambique.
She says refugees and undocumented asylum-seekers from across Africa have continued to come into the country, albeit at a reduced rate because of Covid-19.
“The new arrivals’ influx is recorded monthly and for this reporting period there have been few new arrivals because of the Covid‑19 pandemic. The Covid-19-induced lockdown has so much reduced movement and this has also been both a blessing and curse to both parties,” she said.
Although Zimbabwean authorities keep intercepting immigrants and deporting them, as seen by the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali experiences, the numbers that do not make it to the refugee camp and the numbers that succeed in crossing into South Africa could be much higher.
“By the end of September 2021 UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] statistics indicated that Tongogara Refugee Camp hosts a total of 15 210 asylum seekers and refugees, 7 120 females and 8 090 males,” Chinake said.
The United States embassy in Harare said that before Covid-19, up to 100 refugees arrived in the country each month, and that Tongogara camp was designed to carry no more than 3 000 people.
According to the UNHRC, “Zimbabwe is home to more than 22 000 refugees and asylum-seekers. Most refugees live in the Tongo-gara refugee camp and a small population live in urban areas.”
During a January visit to Zimbabwe, the UNHCR assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, said although Zimbabwe had made efforts to improve the protection of refugees in the country, “more still requires to be done”.
Although the Zimbabwean authorities trained law enforcement agents on human trafficking, “the government lacked a systematic procedure to investigate cases, and immigration officials lacked capacity to detect and investigate trafficking”, says the US embassy, pointing to gaps in stemming the use of Zimbabwe as a favoured transit point.
The embassy has also raised concerns about the treatment of refugees, noting that they are sent back to their countries of origin where their safety is not guaranteed.
In an update on 20 April, Mario Lito Malanca, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) chief of mission in Zimbabwe noted that “since the onset of the Covid‑19 pandemic in March 2020, more than 557 864 migrants have returned to Zimbabwe”.
“They have been provided various forms of support by IOM. IOM works with partners in various sectors to complement government’s mandate to promote safe and orderly migration as well as to protect the rights and dignity of migrants in Zimbabwe,” Malanca said, at a time when the tide of immigrants from other countries has not ebbed.