Some of the survivors from a harrowing migrant journey that departed the Tete Province of Mozambique for South Africa have recalled their experiences for the first time. The truck transporting the migrants was discovered by police on the Malawi-Mozambique border on March 24. Only 14 people were rescued alive, as police discovered 64 bodies inside the truck’s container.
18-year old Djene Degefa described being forced into a small, hot, and dark container by the smugglers which quickly and tragically, proved to be a death trap for many of his fellow travelers. His recollection of the experience shines a penetrating light on the cruelty and violence suffered by migrants at the hands of smugglers in Southern Africa: “I was beating sides of the container… I was even beating people near me, I knew that others are dying, and I felt in my heart that I was dying too.”
22-year old Gebisa Neme, another survivor, has also described the torturous methods used by the smugglers on the journey: “The entire journey was, however, terrible. The smugglers kept us in the bush during day time, and we covered long distances on foot under the cover of darkness without food and water. When we asked for rest they beat us,” he explained. These sentiments were echoed by another survivor, 20-year old Tigistu Birhanu, who recalls being “robbed and tortured by the smugglers”.
It is a miracle that these men were able to survive and share their story. The rescue operation was coordinated by the governments of Ethiopia and Mozambique, assisted by IOM and the European Union -International Organization for Migration (IOM) joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration in the Horn of Africa. Allegedly, the migrants were only discovered after beating on the sides of their container after they overheard the smugglers talking with police at a checkpoint.
However, these haunting reflections serve as a reminder to the desperate situation many African migrants find themselves in. As countries shut down borders in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, migration policy experts have cast warnings that some governments may be exploiting the situation to push through harsh immigration policies that have little relevance to public health. According to the UN’s IOM, over 2,300 foreign migrants are currently in limbo in Niger, unable to move forward or back.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, foreign migrants continue to be denied access to socio-economic support from the government. Dr Abdul Karim Elgoni, chairperson of the Africa Diaspora Forum, has even argued that at the beginning of the lock down the South African government portrayed migrants as “enemies of the state”.
This global pandemic has forced governments to make difficult decisions. But that is not to say that immigration policies which seek to support those migrants who have been left vulnerable are anathema to immigration policies which protect public health. Regional bodies like the Southern African Development Community and the African Union must do more to initiate conversations and action from African governments to offer refuge to migrants in limbo.