As I write this piece 19 Malawian women and children are languishing at Chipinge Prison in Zimbabwe for contravening Zimbabwe’s Immigration Act. The 19 are 14 women and five under-five children. They were intercepted by Zimbabwe police at a road block as they were travelling in a bus to South Africa because they did not have travel documents. They have been at Chipinge Prison for close to two months now.
I don’t sympathize with law breakers which these women and their children are. But breaking Zimbabwe Immigration Act is not quite my concern. Rather it is the cause of their desperation which forced them to use any trick in the books to beat the system and migrate to South South. The 14 women represent the millions of Malawians who are not happy with their status quo. They were not travelling to South Africa for fun as tourists but running away from their pitiable economic state.
Why did they not have travel documents? There could be many reasons. One is that they could not afford passport fees which was K48 000 for an ordinary one and K58 000 and K68 000, respectively, for an urgent/express passport. The other is that their need to travel might have been urgent and it could have taken them forever to wait for a passport.
But these women felt not having a passport or passport fees are not enough reasons to stop them from travelling down to Joburg. They must have seen many Malawians travelling to South Africa without travel documents. Just money and proper connections!
The fact that the women managed to pass Malawi and Mozambique border posts and were only intercepted in Zimbabwe speaks volumes about how porous the country’s borders are. How, if one may ask, were they intercepted by immigration officers outside Malawi and not in Malawi? The 19 women and children without travel documents are being sent back to Malawi because, in the first place, our officers ‘failed’ to do their job. But did they literally fail? How can a quarter of the passengers in a bus without travel documents cross two immigration posts—Malawi and Mozambique—without being detected? They must have bought their way out.
The first people to stop the 19 people from travelling should have been the bus officials. They were the first to be palm oiled. But the bus officials could only accept to be bribed if they knew the system is beatable all the way. I guess even the Zimbabwean Immigration officials who intercepted the Malawian women are not impregnable. But most likely the poor Malawian women did not have enough cash to buy their way through all the borders. But if indeed it is not about money that Zim immigration intercepted the women, then I commend them for their strict enforcement of the law.
My concern is not how corrupt Mozambican and Zimbabwean immigration officials are. It is about the gnawing corruption which is wreaking havoc at the fabric of society. This is the problem that Government needs to urgently deal with as it embarks on the e-passport project through which it will raise billions of Kwacha from poor Malawians struggling to have three square meals a day.
An e-passport is a biometric passport, or a digital passport, or a traditional passport that has an embedded electronic microprocessor chip which contains biometric information that can be used to authenticate the identity of the passport holder. Now, I have no problem with government introducing a digital passport. Malawi is not an island and needs to conform to international travel requirements. I understand most of our neighbours like Zambia and Tanzania have already made the transition from machine readable zone (MRZ) passports to e-passports and some EU countries have also put a regulation that they will be issuing visas to countries with e-passports only. With that background I guess, Malawi has no choice but move with the times.
But why did Malawi not already switch to the e-passport? When did government know that it will need the e-passport? Especially that holders of the Malawi e-passport will have to part with a cool K75 000 to get the new document. And why K75 000? Considering that there are many Malawians with passports that are valid for close to a decade people now think that government is switching because it is broke and not because it wants to move in tandem with the international community.
More importantly, as government switches to the e-passport, it should also deal with corruption so that we don’t have situations like the 19 women and children stuck in a Zimbabwe prison for two months now.