'We can't go home empty-handed'

Onias was 16 years old when he ran away from his home in rural Zimbabwe. Schools were shuttered and his village had run out of food. But after his mother died, leaving him an orphan, he set out on his own.

So he borrowed some money from a friend and made his way to the border with Botswana, about 250km away, slipping across unnoticed at one of the many rural crossing points.

He made it as far as Francistown, Botswana’s second city, located near the border, where he spent months doing odd gardening jobs until police stopped him last month.

“The police stopped me on my way home.
They said, ‘We need to see your passport’. But I didn’t have a passport,” Onias said.

Onias is among the average 110 Zimbabweans deported by Botswana every day, a small fraction of the 100 000 Zimbabweans believed living illegally in the country, according a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Like most of the deportees, he simply can’t afford a passport, which costs $143, slightly less than Zimbabwe’s per capita gross domestic product last year, which was $200.

The UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) runs a centre just inside the Zimbabwean border, where Botswana authorities take the deportees in clean white trucks.

Some have little more than the clothes they’re wearing, but others unload an astonishing cache of plasma televisions, kitchen appliances and overstuffed sacks of clothing—whatever the authorities would allow them to pack.

IOM gives them a meal, medical care if needed, a place to spend the night, and helps them organise transportation to their homes in Zimbabwe. Minors like Onias are given an escort for their trip home, explained Andrew Gethi, who manages the centre.

Since Zimbabwe’s unity government took office in February, the numbers of deportees have dropped sharply, down from a peak of 237 a day in January, Gethi said.

Traffic across the border generally has slowed, as Zimbabwe’s economy has stabilised with the abandoning of the local currency, left worthless after years of hyperinflation.

Shops that were empty last year have re-stocked while import restrictions have eased, meaning Zimbabweans can again buy food locally.

“The number of cross-border traders has dropped, because goods are locally available again,” Gethi said, adding that tens of thousands of Zimbabweans still cross the border legally every month.

Botswana’s migration problem is small compared with the estimated 1,2-million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, but has an outsized effect on a nation with only 1,9-million people.

The exiles are among the at least two million Zimbabweans who have fled their country’s daily hardships, forming a lifeline to their families back home.

Since Harare abandoned its local currency, remittances from relatives abroad is one of the only ways rural Zimbabweans can receive the foreign currency now needed to survive.

For that reason, the overwhelming sentiment among the deportees is the painful shame that they can no longer provide for their families.

“I left everything in Botswana. I was working as a hair stylist, and now I’ve come back empty-handed,” said a woman who gave her name only as Molly.

She was arrested in the eastern Botswana town of Serowe, but said her family in Zimbabwe would never learn of her deportation.

“I have to go back to my business,” she said.

Botswana spends more than any country in the region except South Africa on deportations, about $285 000 a month, according to the UNHCR study.

Meanwhile, many of the deportees say they will just slip across the 800km border.

“We are going back tonight,” said Andrew Patson as he registered to receive a meal at the IOM centre. “We miss home, but we can’t go home empty-handed.”—AFP

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