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ILLEGAL travel between Zimbabwe and South Africa has persisted, despite joint efforts to thwart the practice by both countries, it has emerged.
The two governments recently launched a joint operation to curtail criminal activities such as border jumping, touting, use of fake immigration stamps, fake travel documents and human and goods smuggling.
Criminal border crossing reached a peak at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Both the Zimbabwean and South African governments decreed lockdowns that severely restricted travel.
An investigation conducted by NewZimbabwe.com, in conjunction with Information for Development Trust early this year revealed how officials, among them immigration, police and military officers, assisted illegal travellers to cross through the Beitbridge Border post from Zimbabwe to South Africa and back.
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Bus crews whose operators had been banned from crossing the border paid the officials for passage.
This was despite the numerous roadblocks on the highway to check if travellers and transporters had the necessary paperwork to travel or operate.
Follow-up investigations by NewZimbabwe.com have revealed that the operation that was launched following the publication of our story has hardly yielded intended results.
In the first quarter of 2020, the Zimbabwean government ordered the shutting down of all borders to curb the spread of Covid-19, allowing only travellers with work permits, truck drivers, buses carrying essential goods and returnees to pass.
During that time, people intending to travel without work permits were considered ‘border jumpers’ despite having valid passports.
Due to the decline in the Covid-19 caseload in Zimbabwe, the government reopened borders to fully vaccinated travellers.
Travelers are now required to produce valid passports, proof of vaccination against Covid-19 and valid negative PCR test results.
The recent survey showed there have been slight changes concerning cross border travelling.
Before borders reopened, local buses, particularly those that pick passengers from Roadport Bus Terminus and Mbudzi Round About in Harare used to charge R2500 or US$150 and are now charging R2000, which is equivalent to US$120 per trip for those without passports and US$30 or R500 for those with valid passports and vaccination cards.
“We have reduced our fares due to the reopening of the border; we now charge R2000, which covers everything that is required. We will make sure all your needs are catered for until your destination. We will do everything for you.
“It is up to you, you can tell us how much you want to give us, but I will not lie to you, for anything less than R2000 we will drop you at the border and you will have to process your papers on your own,” a conductor at Roadport bus terminus said.
The bus operators also said the operations by security officials will not stop human smuggling between the neighbouring countries.
“As long as you have enough money to bribe officers, nothing is impossible in Zimbabwe. We have been doing this for years and nothing will change. It will remain this way,” he said.
In our first investigation, the chief immigration director, Respect Gono, who professed ignorance about the illegal bus operations, promised that her department would investigate the unauthorised travel.
In our follow-up investigation, she said 206 illegal immigrants had been deported back to their countries of origin between March and May alone.
“The department of immigration, working with other security agencies, has been relentless in fighting the menace. On a monthly basis, an average of 100 foreigners are intercepted and repatriated to their countries of origin,” Gono said.
“Between March and May alone, two hundred and six (206) migrants, who entered Zimbabwe, were intercepted and repatriated, consisting mainly of Ethiopia, Somalia, Malawi, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo nationals,” she said.
She added that buses, trucks, commuter omnibuses that were used in committing the offences had been intercepted and the operators prosecuted, but did not give further details about the offenders.
Gono also bemoaned the absence of laws which punish offenders.
“Cases encountered by Zimbabwe immigration comprise smuggling of Zimbabweans to other countries in the region as well as the smuggling of other foreign nationals into Zimbabwe,” she said.
According to her, smuggling syndicates and illegal immigrants often use concealed entry points along border lines.
They reportedly pay for shelter in villages along the border, are dropped off before security check points and then collected at agreed spots till they reach planned borderline exit points before exiting Zimbabwe.
She added: “These illegal movements involve risks such as rape, sexual abuse, assault, theft, murder and sometimes accidental deaths.
“Victims are reluctant to report such offenses for fear of further retribution because they are conscious of their illegal actions”.
So far, the police have reported that 17 long distance buses and three haulage trucks have been impounded at Beitbridge Border Post by the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) for smuggling.
South Africa is an attractive destination for Zimbabweans fleeing an economic meltdown back home and also to procure goods for resale locally.