Immigration officers, soldiers aid illegal crossings into South Africa

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From Tawanda Kanhema in Beitbridge

INTENSIFIED patrols on Zimbabwe’s border with South Africa are failing to deter border jumping and smuggling along the Limpopo River, with illegal crossings facilitated by well organized syndicates taking place right under the nose of Zimbabwean law enforcement agents manning the old Limpopo bridge.

Illegal immigrants leave for the South African border- Pic Tawanda Kanhema

Illegal crossings have become a cash cow for police and army officers manning the bridge, and illegal immigrants are paying their way into South Africa, where some of them are immediately apprehended by South African law enforcement agents and deported in what has become a revolving door routine.
At least 25 illegal immigrants were rounded up by South African law enforcement agents on Thursday afternoon after crossing into the country through a walkway under the bridge, and taken to a holding camp in Musina before being deported on the following day.
Despite reports that 15 people drowned on the crocodile infested Limpopo River while trying to cross into South Africa, rising levels of water in the river and the recent beefing up of border patrols on the South African side, people from all parts of the country are still braving the odds and crossing through undesignated points.
This reporter and two other colleagues from Beitbridge spent the night with a group of 150 deportees and border jumpers who slept outside a food court in the border town after numerous unsuccessful attempts to cross the flooded Limpopo, and witnessed the suffering people are going through and the callousness of organized syndicates smuggling them across the border.
At least 450 deportees were repatriated after being released from South Africa’s Lindela holding camp earlier this week, and despite the tales of suffering and hardship that hey related about life inside the holding camps, most of them had crossed back into South Africa before the end of the day.
Yesterday’s group had been deported on Wednesday, and had unsuccessfully tried to return to South Africa twice using the Old Limpopo Bridge. The smugglers, who were using three South African registered cars, spent the night driving groups of deportees to the river and failed to transport them after realizing that water levels had risen significantly.
“Some of these people have spent three weeks here, waiting for a chance to make it across the border, and we see people suffering here every night after being deported or dumped by their smugglers,” said a security guard manning the food court.
A visit to a number of entry points along the river this week revealed that dozens of people are losing millions of dollars to cunning conmen popularly known as omalume who promise to take them to the South African taxi rank, only to be rounded up and detained at Lindela, Seshego and other holding camps before they are eventually deported.
The omalume, who openly associate with law enforcement agents on both sides of the border, charge between R400 and R600 or $5-7 million to take immigrants across the border and accompany them to the nearest pick-up points in South Africa.
Desperate to get into South Africa and seek employment or sale their wares, many people submit themselves to the conmen, who sometimes just cross the bridge and hand them over to South African police.
Most immigrants are using a metal walkway under the Limpopo Bridge to cross to the no man’s land, before lowering themselves to the swelling river’s banks with a rope tied to the bridge’s tiers.
The bridge is manned by Zimbabwean police and army officers on one end and their South African counterparts on the other, and while illegal immigrants slip under the bridge with ease on the Zimbabwean side, South African police scour the metal walkway for illegal immigrants and net them as soon as they land on South African soil.
South Africa is reported to have deployed at least 200 police and army officers recently to beef up patrols along the order and curb incidents of border jumping, which have been blamed for increasing crime rates in the country.
South African army officers were seen conducting regular patrols and rounding up at least 25 border jumpers on Thursday afternoon, and they are deporting an average of 1000 illegal immigrants every Thursday, and 400 everyday and at least 1000 every Thursday.
Zimbabwean police are expected to beef up their operations with mounted patrols in an effort to reduce border jumping and smuggling along the border.
“We are going to deploy more police details to the border area,” said Chief Inspector Clever Ntini, the Officer in Charge of Beitbridge.
There are at least 200 crossing points along the Limpopo from Beitbridge to Sango border post, and the security fence on both sides of the border is riddled with holes. On getting to the banks, immigrants asked to remove their clothes and carried across the river by the omalume. Some succeed in crossing the river, while others drown. Illegal crossings further downstream are believed to have declined with the raising water levels, and most people have resorted to using the walkway under the old Limpopo Bridge.
Deportees returning from their aborted missions turn into destitutes on being dumped at Beitbridge, and most have resorted criminal activities and prostitution to in an effort to raise money for food and bus fares to return to their homes.
According to South African media reports, at least 97 000 people were repatriated in 2005. However, Zimbabwean officials say about 50 000 people have been repatriated.
Chief Insp Ntini, was quoted saying deportees were fanning crime in the town, and said ZRP and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) were working on solutions to accommodate deportees crime in the border town.
An IOM reception and support center meant to accommodate deportees is nearing completion. The center is also expected to provide repatriated citizens with food, information on HIV and AIDS and counseling.