Dzaleka Refuguee Camp became a war zone on September 25 last month as police moved in to crush human smuggling syndicates that were reported to be operating around the camp, bringing in illegal immigrants from East Africa enroute to South Africa.
Dowa police officer-in-charge Owen Maganga said they had received a tip that there were 150 illegal migrants hidden within the camp by a human trafficking syndicate, but only managed to arrest 15—all Ethiopians.
“When we went, there was resistance from human smugglers and others who did not understand our intentions. There was a confrontation in which refugees attacked and smashed one of our vehicles.
“The police retreated and came back three days later with armoured vehicles to arrest the illegal immigrants. We arrested 15 of them while others ran away. We also arrested five suspected human smugglers during the raid,” he said.
The deputy commissioner of police said the illegal immigrants are being held on remand, pending trial, but the five suspects would be charged with human trafficking and would appear in court as soon as investigations were concluded.
Maganga said other suspected human traffickers were on the run, and believed to be armed with guns and police are hoping that well-wishers can come forward with information on their where-abouts.
The arrests have confirmed the 2009 International Organisation for Migration (IOM) report, which established that unscrupulous businesspersons have been using the camp as a transit point for smuggling illegal migrants to South Africa, in search of greener pastures.
During the day, Dzaleka is a vibrant township, with thriving micro-businesses ranging from hairdressing salons and restaurants to grocery stores selling farm produce. And the opening of a bank recently has increased commercial activities at the camp, which is about 35 kilometres north of Lilongwe.
By cover of night, however, the camp is fertile ground for smuggling illegal migrants. Situated some 20 minutes’ drive off the M1 Road in Dowa, the camp has no fence around it and legitimate asylum seekers and illegal migrants alike can enter or leave without any checks.
Managed by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security with the support of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Dzaleka is home to some 34 701 refugees and asylum seekers, fleeing violence and persecution in East and Central African countries, according to UNHCR spokesperson Lumbani Msiska.
Some 20 673 in the camp have fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); 7 529 from Burundi; 6 200 from Rwanda and the others mostly from Ethiopia and Somalia.
On a visit to Dzaleka Camp, this reporter met four teenagers from DRC, who described how a syndicate of smugglers brought them to Malawi, hidden in cargo on a goods truck.
“We had no water and no food,” said one of the four, who declined to be identified by name, because he had been smuggled across the border.
“For seven days it was like this, until we reached Karonga. But all that is the past now, because we have food here,” he said.
Although they receive beans, maize and cooking oil, they are unable, at times, to prepare the food.
“We have no money to buy charcoal and mill the maize,” said one of the four.
Upon arrival in northern Malawi, illegal migrants claim to be asylum seekers and are granted temporary protected legal status, with recognition as refugees. They are transported from the reception and transit point at Karonga, near the Tanzanian border, to Dzaleka. UNHCR used to cover the cost of this transport, but now it is the refugees who pay K9 000 per person.
For those who want to travel further, it takes only a few minutes to be aimed in the direction of syndicates at the centre of operations to smuggle people to South Africa.
UNHCR acknowledges reports of human smuggling from Dzaleka Camp, but says it is the responsibility of the Malawi Government to deal with the problem.
The IOM’s 2009 report identified Dzaleka as the most significant route for illegal migrants heading south from East Africa, adding that the journey from the Horn of Africa often starts in Moyale, a town on Ethiopia’s southern border with Kenya.
From there, the illegal immigrants travel by road to Kenya’s capital Nairobi or its main port, Mombasa. From Kenya they connect to Mbeya in Tanzania before crossing into Malawi at Songwe, in Karonga.
It can cost more than $8 000 (about K6.2 million) to navigate from East Africa to South Africa, with illegal migrants paying about $5 000 (about K3.9 million) to get from Dzaleka Camp to South Africa. It is a lucrative trade for the people smugglers, who camp residents said drive Toyota Fortuner and Mercedes-Benz vehicles, which are well beyond the financial reach of a refugee.
In 2009, the IOM report estimated the human smuggling business through Dzaleka to be worth $40 million (about K30.9 billion). IOM declined to give current figures, which are believed to be more than the 2009 figure, saying it was not for public consumption.
Before the police raid, officials said they were not aware of the IOM report. But a whistle-blower at Dzaleka recently alerted officials, demanding an end to the people smuggling business, saying it disturbed prayers and education at the local mosque.
“These smugglers use the mosque sometimes to hide the illegal immigrants,” said Nduwimana Nasoro, a Burundian national who has been in Malawi for 15 years and speaks fluent Chichewa.
“You will find people wearing shoes in the mosque, others looking very dirty. We wondered what was happening. Then we realised these people are not Muslims for prayers. They are illegal immigrants being transported to South Africa,” he added.
Nasoro said speaking out had cost him a lot and that he and his friends had been subjected to ill-treatment. He said a group of Somali nationals threw him off the committee that runs the mosque and that there had been attempts to have him arrested, on what he said were baseless charges.
“We are no longer praying at the mosque, because they removed us and deposed Sheikh Daudi, who (had) been leading prayers since 2011. We have reported this matter to the camp management, the police, the Anti-Corruption Bureau, Muslim Association of Malawi and the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security, but to no avail,” Nasoro said.
“Our children no longer (attend the) madrassa at the mosque because the place is used for human trafficking. Our children are now learning in a small, dilapidated house which we are renting for them,” he added, pointing out the building.
Nasoro said that in June, the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security ordered the rivals to settle the matter amicably and to share the mosque, but that the Somali-led group ignored government’s instructions.
Need for action
UNHCR-Malawi country director Monique Ekoko, said her agency lacked the capacity to investigate reports of people smuggling at Dzaleka, but had raised the issue with the government.
“We have come across reports that there is a human smuggling syndicate operating around the camp,” she said, adding: “We have even sent back some Ethiopians upon discovering that they were not asylum seekers.
“But most of it is hearsay, so it becomes difficult to deal with matters without concrete evidence. We don’t handle security matters as a UN agency. It is the duty of the government. And we have tabled this matter with the government, which is looking into it very seriously.”
Speaking on behalf of Commissioner for Refugees in the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security, Samuel Duncan Malowa, who is a senior administrative and operations officer, said Dzaleka Camp has police officers who look into security issues of illegal migrants and people smuggling.
In addition, Malowa said his office wants to ensure there is peace in the camp.
“If these people will not work together in the mosque, we might consider shutting it down. As for human trafficking, we will organise unannounced inspections so that we can catch them in the act,” he said.
It would seem the recent raid was part of the action that Ministry of Home Affairs promised. —To be continued next week
— “This story was produced by The Nation. It was written as part of Reporting Transnational Organised Crime, a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in partnership with the EU funded ENACT programme. More information at http://enactafrica.org/. The programme funders are not responsible for the article’s content. The content remains the editor’s sole responsibility.”