Category Archives: Refugees

Imprisoned prisoners: the double tragedy of refugees in Zimbabwe


Every state has a right to defend its sovereignty and national integrity-yes. Every state also has a right to protect its borders from infiltrators who are a threat to its national security-yes.  In so doing, it is hence not only necessary but also prudent for any state to have immigration laws that regulate the ability of citizens and non-citizens alike to leave and enter its territory. Indeed it is an international norm for states to have specific requirements about who can enter their territory and under what circumstances, hence the need for identity documents and the imposition of visas to allow legal entry to non-nationals. This scenario is the picture perfect setting, where migration is voluntary and initiated by design- properly planned by the individuals concerned. Indeed when the movement of persons from their nation of origin into another is voluntary, then the receiving state has a legitimate and justified expectation that the documentation of the traveler be up to date and in order. However, that expectation by the receiving state ceases to be legitimate, reasonable and justifiable when it comes to refugees -but not for the government of Zimbabwe.

Refugees are prisoners of their ill-fate, victims of their own statehood, targeted by their own people.

Burundian refugees in Zimbabwe

Immigration, including the presence of refugees in Zimbabwe is governed by the Immigration Act [Chapter 4:02], the Citizenship Act [Chapter 4:01:], the Immigration Regulations Statutory Instrument 195 of 1998 and other ad-hoc pieces of legislation. Section 8(1) of the Immigration Act permits the arrest of any person falling in the category of prohibited persons suspected to have illegally entered into Zimbabwe to be detained for not more than 14 days while enquiries into their identity are underway. Section 9 of that Act allows such persons to be detained in a prison or a police cell.

However, the Immigration Act makes a clear distinction between such prohibited persons and refugees. Refugees or individuals claiming to be refugees upon their arrival on Zimbabwean territory are not prohibited persons. They should therefore not be detained in prison. Instead they must be taken to holding facilities for refugees while their status is being determined. This has not been the case in practice as this provision has been either ignored or disregarded.

The first time I heard of the conduct of the Zimbabwean government towards refugees was in May 2011, when “The Zimbabwean”, an online newspaper reported the inhumane conditions under which close to 100 Somali refugees, driven from their homes by the protracted war in their country, were being detained by the Zimbabwean government at the Beitbridge border post near South Africa. Some of the refugees had contracted malaria, and at least one was confirmed dead by the Chief Police in Charge of Beitbridge border town, Hosiah Mukombero. The Refugees ended up receiving assistance from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) which has temporary holding facilities at Beitbridge border post. The refugees were clearly trying to cross the border to South Africa, which has better economic circumstances than Zimbabwe. Most refugees are reluctant to remain in Zimbabwe because they are restricted to Tongogara refugee camp, in Chipinge, Manicaland Province of Zimbabwe. This camp is far from many facilities, it marginalises the refugees and renders them wholly dependant on donor aid, denied a chance of restoring their dignity, the ability to work for themselves and become self sustaining.

In further reports in October 2011, IOM deplored the detention of 26 Somali and 74 Ethiopian asylum seekers at Harare remand prison while awaiting transfer to Tongogara refugee camp. “The Zimbabwean” reported that a senior refugee official in the Department of Social Welfare, Moira Gombingo had admitted to the torture of migrants including refugees by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) but justified it as routine security checks. She also mentioned that after being grilled by the CIO, they were then handed over to the security services of their countries of origin without being allowed access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This is a violation of UN rules on treatment of asylum seekers. Ordinarily, Ethiopians would not pose a security threat to Zimbabwe because of the geo-political divides between the two countries. Hence, the only plausible reason for such arduous security checks would be for the protection of the former Prime Minister Mengistu Haille Mariame who lives in Zimbabwe and is accorded protection by the Zimbabwean government.

Another report in January 2012 by “The Standard” revealed that immigration officials raided the premises of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMECZ) in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in order to detain and eventually deport the 26 Congolese (DRC) refugees sheltered in that church, half of whom were minors. Charity organisations were taking care of the refugees who had arrived in Zimbabwe from their war torn country. The officials wanted to send the minors to Mlondolozi prison and the adults to Khami maximum prison saying they were a threat to national security.  The Methodist church eventually arranged with the UNHCR to have the refugees taken to Tongogara Refugee Camp.

These refugees were believed to be supporters of an opposition party to the incumbent head of state of the DRC, Joseph Kabila. Again one wonders whether their treatment could be linked to their opposition to Kabila, whose regime the government of Zimbabwe supports. Such support has included Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Great War of Africa which Zimbabwe joined in September 1998.

These stories form part of a systemic anti-refugee campaign by the government of Zimbabwe. Sources from the Zimbabwe Prison Services (ZPS), whose identity remains anonymous for security reasons, explained that three kinds of migrants are usually brought to the prisons for detention. The first group consists of illegal migrants who enter into the Zimbabwean borders without proper documentation and are therefore classified as prohibited persons in terms of the Immigration Act. The second category are refugees who would have escaped from Tongogara Refugee camp, are apprehended by the police and sent to prison to verify their identity and status before being returned to the camp. The third category, are mere refugees who would have crossed the border illegally-for obvious reasons and upon apprehension by the police are immediately sent to prison.

The sources explained that these migrants are sent to what they call ‘holding cells’ under similar conditions as prisoners awaiting trial. Thankfully, these migrants are rarely mixed with common prisoners. In Harare, men are sent to Harare Remand prison while women are sent to Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. Children are sent with their mothers and the women are identified as ‘mothers accompanying children.’ The sources indicated that children are rarely sent to homes or care of the social welfare services because government perceives that the period of their detention is too short to bother going through the process of separating them from their mothers and then reuniting them once the mothers’ statuses are determined.

Somali Refugee-Credit UN multimedia

While in detention, the refugees have no access to legal assistance. The government structure responsible for legal aid, the Legal Aid Directorate is overburdened and inadequately resourced and they prioritise prisoners awaiting trial hence these refugees remain in prison until the government decides to release them. Although the provision of food in the prisons has significantly improved in terms of availability where three meals are provided in a day, for refugees, the food offered is unacceptable in terms of quality and content as the food, usually Zimbabwe’s staple food sadza accompanied with green vegetables, is unfamiliar and comes in small quantities.

In terms of sanitation, the refugees are expected to clean their own cells. Each day, they are allowed to go outside for a few hours to get a bit of fresh air and then sent back into their holding cells. They may be given bath soap and washing soap to clean their blankets but because of the inadequacy of resources allocated to the ZPS itself, this may not be available to them.

Ordinarily, the detention of offenders under the Immigration Act should be for a maximum of 14 days. In addition to their being innocent prisoners, refugees often become forgotten in prison until the prison services reminds immigration to facilitate their release.

One wonders why refugees are detained in prison in the first place. The government of Zimbabwe does not have facilities to hold migrants while their status as refugees, economic migrants or such other status is being considered. In fact, ZPS has had to bear the extra burden of detaining migrants including refugees indefinitely, significantly stretching their detention capacity.

Zimbabwe should be guided by a comprehensive international legal framework for the detention of asylum seekers and refugees consisting of Article 31 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees on Non-Penalization, Detention, and Protection; the UNHCR’s 1999 Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards relating to the Detention of Asylum-Seekers; the 2009 UNHCR Selected Documents Relating to Detention; as well as the 2011 UNHCR Guidelines on the Right to Liberty and Security of Person and ‘Alternatives to Detention’ of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, Stateless Persons and Other Migrants. Amnesty International in 2007 also produced a Guide on Migration-Related Detention setting out Human Rights Standards Relevant to the Detention of Migrants, Asylum-Seekers and Refugees which could guide the state on the minimum requirements for the conditions under which refugees and other migrants may be lawfully detained.

Some of the principles which Zimbabwe should follow include the humane treatment of refugees-refugees are vulnerable by the mere fact of their being homeless, forced to abandon their familiar territory and homes, further victimization through detention worsens their situation. They need protection and must not be victimised with arbitrary detention. Women, who may be nursing mothers, pregnant, victims of rape or such other torture, must be given medical and psychological health attention, which they will not be able to get in prison.

Refugees are forced to migrate and may not be in possession of identity documents hence it is critical for immigration officials to work from this perspective when dealing with refugees. An expectation by such officials for refugees to have proper identification would be as absurd as it is unreasonable and unjustified.

The status of refugees should be expedited and detention must be a last resort. Such detention must not be in prison but in temporary holding facilities with basic amenities. The detention period must be only long enough to conduct the security checks. During their period of detention, the refugees must have access to legal representation.

Admittedly, the mixed migratory patterns of individuals from the Horn and East of Africa to Southern Africa,  where Zimbabwe is usually used as a temporary stop-over for economic migrants on their way to South Africa where they anticipate a better life, has made government wary and resentful of individuals claiming to be refugees. This has necessitated the restrictions the government places on access by refugees into Zimbabwean border entry points and when they enter illegally, strict detention to prevent them from fleeing to South Africa.

However there is need to stress that the strategy of the government of Zimbabwe of encampment of refugees also contributes to the challenges. Encampment significantly restricts refugees’ freedom of movement. They are like prisoners in a foreign land. Once these refugees are detained in the camps, they lose all opportunity at creating a better future for themselves. They can not work even if they were professionals in their country of origin and they lack real economic and educational prospects which would be available to them across the border in South Africa if they managed to get access. It is no wonder then that they escape the camp, or avoid being sent to the camp.

If only, they would be given a chance to integrate into society, create their own opportunities for livelihood, governed by the same laws as citizens then more of them would be eager to stay on in Zimbabwe and hopefully restore some sanity to their shattered lives.

Children in detention too-photo WFP

*Attempts to get comments from UNHCR and the Department of Immigration were futile*

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.


Birth of a new nation


As I watched the celebrations by the people of South Sudan on their Independence Day, the 9th of July 2011, I could not help but do so with a sense of nostalgia. I listened with a critical ear to the new President of the new Republic of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit swearing his allegiance to the nation and to serve it in good faith. I noted the presence of dignitaries from the international community with representatives from governments, as well as international and inter-governmental organizations including IGAD, the League of Arab States, the European Union, the African Union, the UN General Assembly with the UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki Moon present in person.

I observed the lowering of the flag of Sudan and the raising of the new flag of South Sudan symbolizing the victory of a People and the manifestation of a new identity.

I watched the jubilant crowds jumping, dancing, singing, and ululating-for a new nation had been born. I pondered over the significant signing of an ‘Interim Constitution’ of the Republic of South Sudan. I took a moment of silence to remember my fellow women who were raped, mutilated and subjected to the worst forms of sexual violence during the conflict. I paid my respects to the men, women, children, husbands, wives, sons and daughters to the crowds celebrating who died for this day to be realized.

Why did I feel nostalgic?

I remembered the Independence Day celebrations of Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980. Yes, I had not been born then but I have watched videos, read articles, seen pictures and heard many stories of how magical that day was. The vision of my country in 1980 is so vivid in my mind that I could have been there. It is a vision of a nation full of hope. A nation overflowing with joy for having achieved a hard won independence. A nation with scars and wounds: bearing testimony to a difficult and painful past.

I remembered the lowering of the Union Jack and the hoisting of the Zimbabwean flag with its bright and beautiful colors – green symbolizing our agricultural capabilities and the wide species of vegetation our land grows; yellow symbolizing the mineral wealth that is abundant beneath our soils; red symbolizing the blood that was shed in wars fought to liberate our country; black symbolizing the heritage and ethnicity of the majority of the population that our nation contains; the white triangle symbolizing our wish for sustained peace; the red star symbolizing our hopes and aspirations for the future as a nation; and the yellow/gold bird being our national symbol-the Zimbabwe bird. I remembered that moment, 31 years ago, when a charismatic leader on the eve of independence addressed the nation and said the following;

“Tomorrow is thus our birthday, the birth of a great Zimbabwe, and the birth of its nation. Tomorrow we shall cease to be men and women of the past and become men and women of the future. It’s tomorrow then, not yesterday, which bears our destiny. As we become a new people we are called to be constructive, progressive and forever forward looking, for we cannot afford to be men of yesterday, backward-looking, retrogressive and destructive. Our new nation requires of every one of us to be a new man, with a new mind, a new heart and a new spirit. Our new mind must have a new vision and our new hearts a new love that spurns hate, and a new spirit that must unite and not divide.” (Full speech available at http://www.kubatana.net/html/archive/demgg/070221rm.asp?sector=OPIN&year=2007&range_start=31)

I can even see the crowds going into a frenzy as the legendary Bob Marley performed the song ‘Zimbabwe’ in the National Sports Stadium which opens with the lyrics “Every man has got a right to decide his own destiny” (Full song and live performance available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnpBtRlfdjc). The ceremony was witnessed by Heads of State and Government and representatives of nearly 100 countries plus representatives of several international, political and voluntary organizations. I remembered the handing over of a new Constitution negotiated between the Nationalist leaders and the former colonizers at Lancaster House in England hence its name: The Lancaster House Constitution.

Guess what…

31 years on this is the picture of Zimbabwe I would like to paint. Our government has a reputation within the international sphere sourer than olives. In fact it has made enemies with the West choosing a “look-East” policy. The population is experiencing deterioration in living standards with difficulties in accessing fundamental basic needs such as medicines, medical care, education, food and shelter. Yes there have been improvements in 2009 and 2010 as compared to 2008 but the standard that we all once knew has not yet been restored.

The once charismatic leader who made such an inspiring observation as this;

“An evil remains an evil whether practiced by white against black or by black against white. Our majority rule could easily turn into inhuman rule if we oppressed, persecuted or harassed those who do not look or think like the majority of us. Democracy is never mob-rule. It is and should remain disciplined rule requiring compliance with the law and social rules. Our independence must thus not be construed as an instrument vesting individuals or groups with the right to harass and intimidate others into acting against their will. It is not the right to negate the freedom of others to think and act, as they desire,” (Mugabe in his Independence speech on 17 April 1980)

has resorted to organized violence and torture, abductions, rape, destruction of property including people’s homes to stay in power. The parties that liberated the nation from colonialism [the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union Patriotic Front (PF-ZAPU) have come together to form a single party [the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) that uses all manner of treachery and trickery to get rid of opposition. The Constitution that the country inherited, although imperfect then has been amended 19 times reducing it to a manual to keep some people in power and the rest of the nation on the margins.

How did we get to this?

Complacency I would say. We [and by this I mean Zimbabweans] did not make the right demands at the right times. We allowed our constitution to be manipulated for political expediency and neglected to jealously guard it. That could have been because we never really felt we owned it since it was given to us upon our independence but we certainly should have tried to better acquaint ourselves with it. We allowed a single party to grow to proportions that led it to think it is the only party with a legitimate right to exist in and rule our country. We entertained/tolerated/bore a leader for so long he now thinks he owns us and has eloquently stated so;

We have fought for our land, we have fought for our sovereignty, small as we are we have won our independence and we are prepared to shed our blood…. So, Blair keep your England, and let me keep my Zimbabwe.” (Speech of the President of Zimbabwe at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg 2 September 2002)

They say history has a way of repeating itself and I hope that adage never comes to pass with regard to the people of South Sudan. I urge the South Sudanese to be wary and prevent the same thing from happening in their country and this is what they should guard against.

First, the women

A gendered analysis will show you that war affects women differently from men. Mothers cannot run away without their children. If they do run with their children, they worry about what their children shall eat, about keeping them warm and free from disease. Their hearts shatter when their children succumb to hunger, cold and disease and die. As wives they have to go for long periods missing the comfort of their husbands fighting on the warfront, fearing that they might be dead. As caretakers they cannot leave the old and disabled in their families hence sometimes they stay and face the worst when the enemy comes. They are often subjected to cruel and degrading treatment and rape. As combatants they fight alongside the men, keeping up with them despite the obvious physiological differences.

My point exactly?

War is rough on women! Why then is it that in most cases this fact is easily forgotten after the war. During the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe it was the women (chimbwidos) who cooked for the guerilla fighters, risking their lives to take the food to the places where the fighters were hidden. Some were raped by the same fighters they served because it was impossible to say no when sexual advances were made to them. The women lost sons, husbands, daughters and some died. They lost their homes. Yet after the war it was predominantly the men…the war veterans who were rewarded for their role. It was the men who occupied key political positions. Not to water-down the positive position that our first vice-President Joyce Mujuru occupies, but why did she have to wait for so many years after independence before she could be awarded this position. The rest of the women were relegated to cheerleading positions where they campaigned for male candidates to hold key positions.

The situation of women in South Sudan was terrible and still remains precarious. The war brought suffering, rape and abuse of women. Social services were continually disrupted. I try to imagine being pregnant in that context, constantly living in fear of rape or death and filled with uncertainty about access to medical facilities, food and water. Many women lost their babies and South Sudan is one of the countries with the highest mortality rates in the world. To further their miseries women’s livelihoods were continuously disrupted with, with cattle raids targeted on defenceless women.

South Sudan adopted a new interim constitution on its independence day after consultations with various stakeholders. A final constitution shall be adopted after the first 4 years of interim rule whereupon elections shall be held for a new parliament and president. These consultations presented an invaluable window of opportunity to the women of Sudan to advocate a supreme law and a system of governance that represented their needs as women. Women in Zimbabwe did not have this pleasure at independence. In fact there was no woman at the Lancaster House negotiations. If there was she was British and had no idea what Zimbabwean women wanted. Although over the 31 years of independence Zimbabwean women have struggled and largely succeeded in asserting their space within the governance of their country, the progress would have been much higher had certain rights been constitutionally guaranteed. The women in South Sudan should not be relegated to spectators and should vigorously pursue their interests before the adoption of a final constitution in 2015. They must place themselves strategically to have their needs addressed. The key women who arose during the long fought war should be the voice of the grassroots. The women in power must be the voice for their voiceless counterparts.

Allow me to digress a little…

The other day I met a female politician from my country (the diplomatic kind); This woman had the nerve to mock another female politician who has been making a lot of noise advocating the adoption of UN Resolution 1325 in Zimbabwe. As she spoke in that derisive tone I really wished that her little nest of diplomatic grandeur could crumble and that she would experience the terrible things that Resolution 1325 seeks to protect women from during and after conflict including rape; internal displacement; becoming refugees; exclusion from peace-building processes; as well as marginalisation of their voices in repatriation, resettlement, rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction processes. I thought to myself, a woman who cannot understand the value of this Resolution and stand and fight for her fellow women, does not deserve to be in a position of influence at all.

Back to my story…

In a nation emerging from years of conflict there is an unavoidable tendency to reward those who have ‘fought’ in other words those women perceived to have made huge sacrifices in the struggle. Yes, their contributions might have been outstanding but it must be remembered that all women ‘fought’ despite never having held a gun or gone to the battlefront. The key women must use their influence to represent the wishes of other women and not prioritize the designs of the political parties they belong to. Individuals like Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, the wife of John Garang De Mabior the former leader of the SPLM, who already wields power as advisor to the President should push for reforms that draw in more women to participate in politics and prioritize that goal above the wishes of the SPLM. Women in Sudan constitute 60% of the population. At the moment 34% of Parliamentarians are women with 7 ministers in a cabinet of 32. Women have a high illiteracy rate with an estimated 80% rating compared to the 60% for men. Women and girls are still traded for cattle and these are the things the women in decision making should fight to change.

Second, the Constitution

South Sudan should ensure that when they adopt their final constitution; that constitution will embrace the views and aspirations of the wider population. Every voice and need should be heard and responded to in the Constitution. It must not only provide for civil and political rights but also incorporate social and economic rights. The Constitution must safeguard against majorities silencing the minorities or else the long and arduous war with the North would have been fought in vain. It must be the supreme law of the land and as such should be respected and adhered to and enforced by an independent and impartial judiciary. It must be based on inviolable fundamental principles which would make amendments even by the required majority in parliament impossible should those amendments be contrary to the founding principles. I say this because in Zimbabwe all the amendments to the constitution were legally made with a 2/3 vote. Some of these amendments violated basic constitutional precepts such as the separation of powers, giving the President excessive power. As of 17 September 2008, the day before the Global Political Agreement which introduced a power-sharing government in Zimbabwe was signed, the Constitution gave the President powers as head of state; head of government; commander of the armed forces; appointer of the judiciary, electoral commission, the attorney general, the registrar general and other key positions hence enabling him to control every decision making processes in Zimbabwe. Although the GPA has reduced some of these powers theoretically, in practice, these are the powers that our President still has. South Sudan should listen, learn and take all measures necessary to make sure this does not happen to them.

Third, the President

President Salva Kiir should not be mistaken as the only Sudanese capable of ruling South Sudan. Inarguably, he has been pivotal in keeping the momentum in the movement for the liberation of the South. His availability as a trusted member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) allowed the party to stand especially after the assassination of SPLM leader John Garang a few weeks after signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which enabled South Sudan to secede from Northern Sudan. To mind comes the similar role that President Mugabe played after the murder of Josiah Magama Tongogara (whom everyone expected to become the President of an independent Zimbabwe) on the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence. However South Sudan should not lose sight of the fact that, leaders should serve the nation’s interests and should be removed the moment they cease to do so. The people of South Sudan should continue to nurture and encourage many options for the presidential post to avoid falling into the same trap as Zimbabweans have where some people believe that there cannot be a Zimbabwe without Mugabe. Excuse me! He was born in 1924 and Zimbabwe existed way before then.

Fourth, the SPLM

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has been the force behind the success of an independent South. In other words the vision for nationalism in the South was spearheaded by the SPLM. They had to take up the guns and fight the North for 22 gruesome years. They lost friends and family who were killed, maimed, raped for South Sudan to be born. Indeed they paid a huge price for the freedom of their country. It was a noble cause they fought for which ought to be commended. However South Sudanese should be careful not to be held at ransom for the rest of their lives by this party because of the leading role it played. I urge the mothers whose sons died to remind anyone who comes to them claiming that the SPLA should be their only party that it is their sons who died and those who are alive should respect the choices of the living. For South Sudan to mature into a full democracy, they must encourage the growth of other parties. It will be up to the people to choose who they please based on their needs and their assessment of the fulfillment of their needs through the policies adopted by the party in question.

Fifth, the oil and land

The oil and land in South Sudan belongs to the South Sudanese and hence should benefit them. Their land holds the potential to diversify the Sudanese economy from being oil based to include large-scale commercial agriculture. They should not make the same mistake Zimbabwe made. Zimbabwe’s leadership agreed in the Lancaster House negotiations with the British to suspend discussions on ownership of or access to land (the main resource in our country) for 10 years after independence. In fact they waited for 20 years to begin to do something to address the glaring imbalance where 1% of the population owned 60% of the means of production and the rest of the 99% watched on with growing discontent. The people of South Sudan should assert their rights to their land and oil beginning now. Yes, foreign investment shall be pivotal to the growth and development of the South Sudanese economy but should it be skewed in serving the interests of the investor, and involve the exploitation of resources at the expense of the masses who are the true owners of the resources? Should the people of South Sudan provide cheap labour in the exploitation of their raw materials, fail to add value to their resources and see no benefits from having such resources at their feet? If that does happen then we can all be assured that it will only be a matter of time before a meltdown occurs when the people realize that this is not what they bargained for when they celebrated and jumped welcoming their independence.

I do wish South Sudan the very best as they join the world of nations.


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