Unaccompanied Minors Face Peril en Route to South Africa

Unaccompanied children are often hidden in luggage or cargo transport vehicles to enter South Africa at great risk.

By Sheila Pires, ACI Africa

A Catholic Priest ministering in Zimbabwe’s Mutare Diocese has, in an interview with ACI Africa, expressed concern about the increasing number of “undocumented and unaccompanied children” entering South Africa.

In the Friday, April 22 interview, Father Phillip Kembo who is the Director of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) of the Zimbabwean Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ZCBC), said many children are smuggled into South Africa at the request of their parents based in South Africa.

“There has been an increase in the number of undocumented and unaccompanied children getting into South Africa, either in buses or in trucks,” Father Kembo said referring to vehicles transporting luggage.

The member of the Clergy of Zimbabwe’s Mutare Diocese added, “Unaccompanied children are often transported to places like South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia, but mainly to South Africa.”

According to Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town South Africa, an advocacy group for refugees and migrants, seven out of every 10 foreign children in state care in South Africa are undocumented; they have no birth certificate, identification papers or passport.

In the interview with ACI Africa, Father Kembo described the way unaccompanied children are smuggled into South Africa and other neighboring countries as extremely dangerous. He said, “In some instances, children are put in a truck driven by Malaitshas and taken to South Africa in the disguise of carrying luggage.”

“These children are covered in a tent and driven for such a long journey under inhumane conditions that can even lead to suffocation and in some instance road accidents,” he further said, adding, “Some of the unaccompanied children cross into South Africa in a trailer. And just imagine what normally happens to trailers; they can just dismantle them.”

The CPLO Director who has been doing advocacy work at some of the major border posts between Zimbabwe and South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique said that parents living in South Africa often pay drivers of luggage buses or trucks to transport their children into South Africa.

“Undocumented Zimbabwean parents who have settled in South Africa pay bus drivers or Malaitshas to bring their children to South Africa,” Father Kembo told ACI Africa.

He made reference to a testimony from those facilitating the movement of the unaccompanied children saying, “Some bus drivers told me that it’s safer when children are transported by buses because parents often collect them at the bus stop upon arrival in South Africa.”

“If these children are caught by migration officials, they are deported to Beitbridge,” the 53-year-old Catholic Priest said in reference to the border town in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South Province where the undocumented unaccompanied children are taken as part of the agreement between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

He added, “The sad reality is that most parents are afraid to go and identify their children because they themselves are undocumented, and fear being caught and deported, so they never appear.”

The deportation of children, Father Kembo said, “can be very traumatizing for the children because they don’t understand why it is happening to them; these children become victims.”

Save the Children estimates that at least 30 percent of the refugees and migrants who enter South Africa are children. Many of the children, the children’s entity indicates, are unaccompanied and undocumented, the highest proportion globally.

In the April 22 interview, the Director of CPLO said the entity of ZCBC “tries to sensitize parents, drivers and bus conductors not to be involved in such risky activities in conjunction with Child Safeguarding principles, while upholding the best interest of the child principle in supporting life.”

He acknowledged with appreciation the advocacy work carried out by the Sisters of the Holy Cross (CSC) at the Beitbridge and Musina borders.

“The activities are also undertaken in collaboration with volunteer Catholic Nuns at the Beitbridge border post, Sr. Esnath Gondo, and Sr. Maria at Musina border post,” Father Kembo said.

The Zimbabwean Catholic Priest told ACI Africa that “the support from the Holy Cross Sisters compliments the task of responding to the issue of migrants and refugees on the Zimbabwean side and this has created a network of sharing ideas and responses to the phenomenon.”

Featured image: Members of the South African anti-migrant group, operating under the slogan “Put South Africa First,” take part in a protest in an inner city section of Johannesburg Feb. 19, 2022. They were protesting to force undocumented migrants out of informal trading. (CNS photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters)

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ACI Africa

The Association for Catholic Information in Africa (ACI Africa), officially inaugurated on August 2019, is a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya, this media apostolate strives to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent. https://www.aciafrica.org/