Some 19 Malawian women and children have spent over a month at Chipinge Prison in Zimbabwe for contravening Zimbabwe’s Immigration Act.
The 19 include 14 women and five under-five children who were travelling to South Africa in a bus, but were intercepted by Zimbabwe police at a road block because they did not have travel documents.
Two of the five children are breast-feeding while another is suffering from gout and is not taking medication, according to a lawyer in Zimbabwe we spoke to.
The lawyer, Perpetual Mutare, who works for Legal Resources Foundation (LRF), confirmed in an interview with Weekend Nation on Tuesday that the ‘illegal immigrants’ appeared before a magistrate’s court in Chipinge Province last week, where they were found guilty of contravening the country’s Immigration Act and were given a suspended sentence.
The Malawi High Commission office in Zimbabwe says it is aware of the issue and will start processing their return, according to Mutare.
The Malawi High Commission in Zimbabwe will guide prison authorities in that country about where the convicts should be released to.
According to Mutare, the convicts stayed on remand for close to a month before they were taken to court as there was no Chichewa-speaking interpreter at Chipinge Court.
He said: “The court had to request the Provincial Magistrate in Harare to send a Chichewa-speaking interpreter to Chipinge.”
But rights activists have blamed Malawi’s porous borders, which the people cross first when they are going to South Africa.
Director for Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre Emma Kaliya wondered how people without proper travel documents are intercepted by immigration officers outside Malawi and not as they attempt to cross the country’s borders.
“This problem speaks volumes of the challenge of our porous borders and it is embarrassing that our people are being returned out there because, in the first place, our officers have failed do their job,” she said.
She also condemned women who venture on such dangerous journeys with children, whom they use when pleading for sympathy.
Women’s Legal Resources Centre (Wolrec), a women’s rights non-governmental organisation says it sympathises with the women and children still in prison, saying poverty has a female face.
Worlec communication, monitoring and evaluation manager Dumase Mapemba, said government has failed its citizens as evidenced by desperate women embarking on such dangerous journeys.
Mapemba also pointed out that under the United Nations (UN) Revised Deliberation Article No 5 on Deprivation of Liberty of Migrants (2017) VI 39, detained migrants ought to have been given appropriate medical care.
Said Mapemba:“In Article VII 40 and 41 prohibit detention of children whether alone or with their parents or guardians. It also prohibits detention of migrants in situations of vulnerability or risk such as pregnant women, breastfeeding women, persons with disabilities and the elderly.”
Mapemba called on Capital Hill to expedite the process of bringing the women and children back to Malawi and also engage the Zimbabwe Government to stop violating the rights of these women and children.
In a response to our questionnaire, spokesperson for Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Rejoice Shumba expressed concern with the trends, saying just recently 100 Malawians were also repatriated from Zimbabwe.
“The ministry is in constant communication with the embassy for periodic consular visits to the prison to process the return of such people,” said Shumba.