- Malawi has 13 000 inmates
Over 400 illegal immigrants are detained at various prisons in the country while waiting to be deported by the Department of Immigration, which has put a strain on the resources of the Malawi Prisons Service (MPS), Weekend Nation has learnt.
The problem is growing by the day as people from Ethiopia and strife-torn DR Congo, Somalia and Sudan flood Malawi and Mozambique en route to South Africa for greener pastures.
Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security Atupele Muluzi has confirmed the situation and has said government is in the process of repatriating some of the illegal immigrants.
“There are presently approximately 300 illegal migrants being held at Maula Prison from the Great Lakes region that have to be repatriated. This is part of our international obligations, but we are facing resource constraints,” Muluzi said.
Muluzi has said government has engaged various partners in discussions for assistance in the repatriation process.
International practices oblige the receiving country to bear the cost of repatriating illegal migrants, but in the case of most of the detainees in Malawi, they come from war-torn territories with barely functioning central governments which could reimburse Malawi’s costs of repatriation.
“Discussions are at an advanced stage and we have assurances that repatriation will take place soon and that this will also help reduce congestion at Maula Prison,” Muluzi said.
He said government is committed to abiding by international obligations as well as human rights commitments.
Said Muluzi: “Issues of migration are as complex as are the reasons why people move. Malawi is fast becoming a transit route for illegal migration. This complexity means that we need to invest more in terms of financing and commitment towards border control management.”
He appealed for society’s assistance in curbing the illegal entry of people into Malawi.
“This is extremely important for State security and that is why government is in the process of constructing new border posts at Chisenga, Chimaliro, Mbalachanda, Mkanda and Mwase,” Muluzi said.
The immigrants’ situation has compounded the congestion in Malawi’s prisons, which are holding almost twice their recommended capacity.
“We have in custody approximately 13 000 inmates throughout the country versus a recommended holding capacity of around 7 000 prisoners.
“Some of those are illegal immigrants serving out their sentences or indeed being held at various facilities in the country. Most of our prison facilities were constructed in the last century. These factors coupled with delays in case clearance by courts have contributed to overcrowding in our prisons,” lamented Muluzi.
The development has worried the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) which has expressed concern about the abusive detention of immigrants in the country’s prisons.
MHRC has warned the country risks breaking international laws as imposing automatic detention on immigrants breaches such legislation.
MHRC executive secretary, Grace Malera, has appealed to the government to ensure it identifies funds to repatriate the illegal immigrants.
Malera said it is shameful for people who have committed no crime to be detained in harsh prison conditions for prolonged months.
She observed that keeping immigrants in prisons is placing a burden on MPS, which is already struggling to take care of inmates who have already exceeded the number of people a prison can hold.
Prison sources have said the problem is similar for Ntchisi, Chichiri and Dedza prisons where the number of illegal immigrants are being detained waiting to be repatriated.
The largest concentration of the detainees is at Maula Prison which holds about 300 illegal immigrants, Dedza has 65, Ntchisi 35 and Chichiri, seven.
The detainees at Chichiri Prison in Blantyre were each fined K20 000 or, in default, serve four months in jail. They failed to pay the fine.
According to some inmates at Maula Prison, who asked not to be named when Weekend Nation visited the institution on Sunday, there is no separation between convicts and the illegal immigrants, the longest of whom has been detained since February.
“There has been some deaths and diseases are spreading at an alarming rate due to congestion,” said one inmate who has been at Maula Prison since last year.
MPS spokesperson Evans Phiri could neither confirm nor deny the allegation as he said he was outside the office.
On the status of the illegal immigrants, Phiri said the Department of Immigration was better placed to comment on their status, as MPS only keeps people that have been committed by the court.
Immigration Department’s Central Region public relations officer, Elaack Banda, confirmed that most of the immigrants being held at Maula Prison are supposed to be repatriated to their countries of origin.
“It’s not deliberate to keep them in prison; it is because the Department of Immigration has no detention centres where they would have been kept. But we are doing everything to repatriate them as soon as possible,” Banda said.
A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) declined to comment because the matter falls outside their remit.
The majority of the illegal migrants are also coming from war-torn countries, which is sending fears that it could fan a rise in crime which is already worrisome.