More than 1 000 illegal Malawian immigrants are currently being held at the Lindela Repatriation Centre, South Africaâ€™s only detention centre for undocumented migrants, and their numbers are increasing in what is seen as a reflection of deepening economic hardship in their home country.
â€œMalawians are flocking to South Africa every day and the numbers are growing,â€ says Chrissie Kaponda, the Malawian high commissioner to South Africa.
â€œMost of them say they want to find jobs, yet they lack proper documentation. The situation is very worrisome.â€
Kaponda says she understands that 45% of those held at the centre come from Malawi.
Lindela, situated in Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg, is managed by Bosasa Operations on behalf of the home affairs department.
Malawi, one of Africaâ€™s poorest countries, has experienced major economic difficulties since the suspension of donor aid in late 2013 in the wake of the Cashgate scandal, which involved the looting of public finances, potentially to the tune of more than R500-million.
More than half of Malawiâ€™s citizens live below the poverty line, and at least 2.3-million are estimated to suffer from food insecurity.
More than 85% depend on subsistence agriculture, which was hit by extensive flooding in early 2014 and since then by drought.
This in turn has affected the price of maize â€“ a staple food for millions â€“ which currently stands at about R400 for 50kg, compared with R260 at the same time last year.
Fighting for the rights of immigrants
Wayne Ncube, an attorney who does strategic litigation work for Lawyers for Human Rights in South Africa, says that, in the past, most of those held at Lindela had been Zimbabweans, but Malawians were now in the majority.
â€œThere have been many arrests since May last year, and itâ€™s true that the number of Malawians affected has grown,â€ he says.
â€œWe are working on various issues relating to the welfare of the migrants. [And] we are working with the South African Human Rights Commission on investigating certain deaths that happened at Lindela,â€ he says, declining to provide more details as the deaths are still under investigation.
In May last year, in the wake of a nationwide outbreak of xenophobic violence, the government announced the launch of Operation Fiela.
Touted as an anti-crime operation, it resulted in the repatriation to their home countries of 15 000 undocumented immigrants by September 2015, according to the minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe.
Home affairs department spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete says that 1 154 Malawians are currently being held at Lindela. Asked why the numbers of Malawians held there appear to have spiked, he said the authorities assumed that many illegal immigrants were in South Africa â€œfor economic reasonsâ€.
Tshwete denies claims that some detainees were being held beyond the legal term because of slow progress in processing their cases.
â€œThe maximum time we can hold a person is 120 days, and no one stays longer than that,â€ he says, adding: â€œWe ensure that all persons detained for illegal migration are treated according to the highest human rights standards.â€
Seeking greener pastures
The repatriation process requires that the South African government provide transportation and security for the transfer of people to their countries of origin.
Kaponda says that the cost of deporting Malawians was contributing to the slow deportation of some immigrants, especially those from countries that do not share a border with South Africa.
â€œIt is easier to repatriate illegal migrants to countries with which South Africa shares physical borders. Air transport is expensive. It costs over R1.2-million just for 100 illegal migrants to reach Malawi.â€
She says that until six months ago repatriations were done by aeroplane, but this had been stopped because of the worsening economic climate in South Africa.
The practice now is to deport people using road transport, involving a minimum of four buses in convoy.
Ben Kaluwa, a University of Malawi economist, confirms that tough economic conditions in the country has left people â€“ particularly young people â€“ with no option but â€œto try to find greener pastures elsewhereâ€.
â€œOur government is failing to provide the right level of public services, including such basic necessities as education, medicine and food,â€ he says, adding that the rapid growth of Malawiâ€™s population is also a factor, as the countryâ€™s economy is failing to absorb new entrants to the labour market.
â€œWe could say that more than 50% of young people [in Malawi] are unemployed,â€ he says, adding that the migrant labour system, in which many Malawians were lured to South Africaâ€™s mining industry in the past, has contributed to a mindset among Malawians that South Africa offers a solution to their financial woes.
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