■ Sharon Kavhu
GOVERNMENTS in Southern Africa are battling a new COVID-19 threat posed by high volumes of illegal migrants taking advantage of the region’s highly porous inter-state frontiers to traverse the region, thereby snowballing the risk of spreading the deadly contagion.
The increase of irregular migration in the region follows the decision by governments to impose strict lockdowns, which included closing all ports of entry to human and vehicular traffic save for cargo.
However, even the truck drivers whose operations are considered as an essential service exempted from the collective embargo are also posing a great risk of transporting the virus along with their cargo across the region, with a number of them having tested positive in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana.
They mainly transport food and other necessary goods from South Africa, the continental economic powerhouse worst hit by the highly virulent COVID-19.
Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe largely depends on South Africa, with which they share boundaries at different intervals, for economic survival.
Zimbabwe and Mozambique, in particular, have high numbers of their citizens living and working in South Africa while further North, countries like Malawi, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) experience high population mobility as people are attracted by South Africa’s magnetic allure.
Zimbabwe, which is the most central, experiences the highest number of transit undocumented migrants from Malawi, Zambia and the DRC.
The expansive borderline between Zimbabwe and South Africa, for instance, is highly porous and migrants continue to move despite a massive joint operation by the two countries involving the military, police and intelligence agents.
Just on Wednesday this week, 41 Malawian nationals were intercepted after skipping the border from South Africa via the Limpopo River. Nine of them tested positive for COVID-19, while 32 others were transported to the Malawian Embassy in Harare for onward transportation to their home country.
“They are currently being quarantined at a facility in the border town of Beitbridge on the Zimbabwean side” said the director of social welfare in the in Zimbabwe's Ministry of Public Service, Labor and Social Welfare Mr. Totamirepi Tirivavi. He further added that, “they will only be allowed to travel once they are fit to do so”.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) chief of mission Zimbabwe-Mario Malanga said there is need for coordinated efforts by regional governments to limit the danger posed by irregular migrants.
“The presence and movements of migrants are fundamental demographic, social, cultural and economic dynamics shaping the local contexts that the pandemic is affecting. Accounting (or not) for migrants in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts will affect the crisis’ trajectories. Inclusive public health efforts involving all governments in the region will be crucial to effectively contain and mitigate the outbreak, reduce the overall number of people affected, and shorten the emergency situation. Mitigating the economic, social and psychological impacts of the outbreak, as well as relevant response measures on all affected persons will allow for swifter recovery,” he said.
An official in the South Africa’s Limpopo provincial immigration office who declined to be identified said despite the huge presence of police and other state security agents at the borderline, the high number of illegal crossing points was making it tough for the them to sufficiently monitor the area.
“What you have to understand is that this borderline is huge and has up to 200 illegal crossing points along the Limpopo river. These crossing points shift depending on the volume of patrols. They change daily,” the official said.
Zimbabwe’s police spokesman Paul Nyathi said the country was battling a huge influx of irregular migrants, mainly along its borders with South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique.
“Our officers are intercepting huge numbers of irregular migrants from South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique. Those coming from Mozambique and Botswana are mostly Zimbabweans who are smuggling goods for resale in the country while the majority of those infiltrating from South Africa are undocumented migrants from Malawi, Zambia, DRC and as far as Somalia who seek to return to their home countries after losing their livelihoods there,” he said.
Botswana, which shares boundaries with Namibia and Zimbabwe to the West and East respectively as well as to the Southern parts with South Africa, says it, has reacted swiftly to the danger posed by irregular migrants after initially recording a few COVID-19 cases involving immigrants.
It is however still battling to deal with the danger posed by truck drivers, some of whom are accused of transporting these migrants in the absence of conventional modes of transport owing to the lockdown.
The same situation also obtains in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia.
“We now have little movement of individuals. At the moment it is the truck drivers who are allowed to bring in essential across the border to other southern African countries who are posing read danger,” a Botswana immigration spokesperson Onkrabile Nato said.
“We have just few cases of border jumpers but if they are found they are repatriated to their respective countries. In our case related to my duty, most Zimbabweans who work for piece works have gathered themselves in groups across the country to voluntarily go back home because there is no work or activity. Every week we take them home. They will come back when things get to normal. The one incident that occurred last week was that of an irregular migrant of Zimbabwean origin who came from South Africa and was taken in by police,” she said.
“Well so far we have two COVID-19 case from truck drivers, they are being addressed every now and then to smoothen the relationship between them and health care provider because they complain about delays and some restrictions that are a bit harsh even though they do understand it’s all about precautions,” she added.
In addition to the danger posed by irregular migration, truck drivers passing through the formal ports of entry are also proving to be a major scare.
This is mainly due to the inadequate testing and screening facilities at some of the ports of entry which allows infected persons to pass through only for them to test positive to COVID-19 once they cross the border into a third country as was the case with six Zimbabwean truck drivers who tested positive in Zambia on May 15, having initially tested negative in Zimbabwe the previous week, according to information given by Zambia’s Minister of Heath Chitalu Chilufya.
Earlier on April 30, a Namibia truck driver had also tested positive to COVID-19 in Zambia.
While there is an acknowledgement of the danger posed to and by these truck drivers, governments in the region cannot entirely close them out since they transport vital cargo needed to keep their economies functioning.