Is Zambia a Safe Haven for Illegal Immigrants? [analysis]

ZAMBIA has in recent years experienced a steady stream of illegal immigrants whose numbers are evident in some towns and cities around the country.

While there are many genuine foreign nationals in search of job and business opportunities, there is a multitude of others who have only succeeded in giving immigrants an unflatering image.

The relaxed ambience of Zambia has been the main attraction for people fleeing from increased conflicts in their countries, but most of them avert immigration controls since they do not possess legitimate documents.

They have been using a warren of routes along the borders with some neighbouring countries, at times assisted by the local people.

It is clear from the statistics of foreign nationals either being removed or deported from Zambia that they are entering the country with blithe disregard for the laws that govern immigration, which is a process of shifting to live permanently in a country that is not one’s.

Many immigrants have been lured by the relative peace and the expanding economic activity in one of the fewer politically-stable African countries.

However, there is a real growing exasperation among some Zambians who are unsettled by the massive influx of undocumented foreign nationals into the country.

It, therefore, behoves the authorities to carefully study the situation and take remedial action to safeguard national security.

The local people raising the red flag on illegal immigrants have either been labelled as xenophobic or harum-scarum individuals, a cynical way to reinforce the idea that they have been discussing something that is socially unacceptable.

Some critics have even poured scorn on a recent joint operation by police, Registrar of Societies, and immigration officers in Lusaka where more than 200 suspected illegal immigrants, mostly from Burundi and Rwanda, were arrested, describing the exercise as ‘unreasonable’.

This is despite the Immigration and Deportation Act number 18 of 2010 empowering the immigration department to enter and search, without a warrant, any premises, trading area, residential area, or dwelling house which an officer has reasonable grounds to believe have evidence connected with the contravention of the Act.

It is thus doubly important to broaden the discourse on the subject as it is not unique to Zambia. It is a problem other countries in Africa and beyond the continent are also contending with.

By way of illustration, recently in Kenya, more than 600 suspected illegal immigrants were taken into police custody in a morning security swoop in Nairobi.

President Uhuru Kenyatta said Kenya would no longer provide a safe haven to those running away from conflict in their countries “if it results in insecurity”.

Kenyan authorities have deported 359 illegal immigrants to Somali since the launch of a security crackdown in April this year, Human Rights Watch has said.

Elsewhere, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete in August last year warned that the East African country would “flush out” all immigrants whose stay was not supported by acceptable documentation.

Mr Kikwete gave a two-week ultimatum to all illegal immigrants to voluntarily leave the country, and 8,000 complied with the directive, according to the Daily News of Tanzania.

The president had made it clear that the operation was not targeting any particular country, but all the people who entered and had been staying in the country illegally.

In Congo Brazaville, almost 12,000 Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) nationals living in the coastal city of Pointe-Noire have returned home.

The authorities in Congo Brazaville are pursuing their policy of expelling foreigners from neighbouring countries without valid papers.

According to Radio France Internationale, almost 10,000 DRC citizens living in Pointe-Noire have gone back home in just over 10 days since the latest operation began.

A study conducted by Hussein Solomon observed that since the demise of apartheid in 1994, South Africa had been confronted with a tide of humanity fleeing from countries north of the Limpopo River, which are confronting poverty, civil war, environmental catastrophe, or political mismanagement.

The study, published in the Mediterranean Quarterly way back in 2005, had a special focus on illegal immigrants in South Africa.

“Taking aantage of this situation, organised crime syndicates have seized on the opportunity to engage in human trafficking, arms running, and drug trafficking.

“The impact of illegal immigration on South Africa is as enormous as it is grave. According to recent studies the majority of illegal immigrants in South Africa do not have more than three years of formal education and no work skills outside those of subsistence agriculture,” Solomon wrote.

The illegal immigrants often compete with low-skilled South Africans in the job market, according to a study conducted by the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (NALEDI), a think tank for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which documented the presence of illegal foreign workers in agriculture, hotels and restaurants, construction, the domestic sector, and informal trading.

In addition, the NALEDI study revealed that many employees felt that the presence of illegal foreign workers had a depressing effect on wages as a result of their accepting work of long hours for low wages, and their resistance to unionisation.

These are compelling details that should help guide the debate on illegal immigrants in Zambia.

The impulsive burst of actions in Ndola, a city on the Copperbelt teeming with foreign nationals, particularly from Somalia, may have resulted from accusations of immigrant communities using their money and influence to acquire domestic and commercial plots with consummate ease while that is not the case for most of the local people.

The immigration department appears to be overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the task of ridding the country of illegal immigrants and maintaining internal security.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the department prosecuted 810, removed 2,754 and deported 392 illegal immigrants in 2013.

There are many other foreign nationals who go undetected. This is compounded by the subtlety with which illegal immigrants plan their entry into Zambia, even if it means being sheltered in containers.

The promise of huge amounts of money has also seduced some immigration officers into helping undocumented foreigners find their way into the country.

A senior officer was almost shot by the police at a checkpoint in Nakonde, a seemingly porous border post in Muchinga Province, as he shielded four illegal immigrants in his motor vehicle.

Escort vehicles for heavy trucks are also being used to conceal dubious foreigners getting into Zambia, as recent reports have revealed.

Initial investigations have indicated that the illegal immigrants pay as much as US$200 each to be taken to Lusaka.

The other loophole seemed to have been through unregulated immigration consultancy services which had mushroomed especially in Lusaka.

Government was compelled to enforce Statutory Instrument number 38 of 2013 to clean up the mess.

Apart from other measures being put in place, it is hoped that the new e-governance project would create a platform for effective immigration management as stipulated in the Sixth National Development Plan.

There are lessons to be learnt from countries like Kenya and Uganda which may have missed the opportunity of managing immigrants and are now pushed into resolving conflicts arising from the influx of undocumented foreigners, obviously at a great cost.

Instead of opposing crackdowns on illegal immigrants, critics should consider the consequences of integrating survivors of violence and colossal tragedy into the mainstream Zambian society without allowing them to first undergo counselling.

This reflects a widely shared view that authorities should introduce measures that would ensure that only legitimate immigrants, who are ready to form symbiotic relationships with the local people, are allowed to reside in localities of their choice.

Zambia cannot afford to operate under an odd amalgam of being too liberal with illegal immigrants while counting the cost that accompanies the failure to observe early warning systems and conflict prevention mechanisms.

While it is important to avoid re-victimising already-traumatised individuals by sending them back to their countries of origin, it should not be at the expense of the safety of local citizens.

Human Rights Watch senior refugee researcher Gerry Simpson argued that it was unlawful for Kenya to force people to return to a country where they risked being persecuted, tortured or exposed to other serious harm arising from generalised violence.

Nevertheless, as Mr Kenyatta puts it, this should not diminish the principle of maintaining internal security.

Similarly, a 2012 study by Raphael Chilala argued that the Zambian Bill of Rights guarantees the basic human rights to all individuals within the territory.

Mr Chilala, who was then a University of Zambia student, noted that this was in line with the requirements arising from the international obligations to promote the observance of human rights within the country’s jurisdiction.

From his standpoint, all individuals, including illegal immigrants, should be entitled to enjoyment of their human rights except for those rights that were exclusively meant for the citizens, such as the right to participate in public life and the right to vote.

However, whether or not all this should negate the provisions of the Immigration and Deportation Act is a matter to be debated by the Zambian people.

Source : The Times of Zambia

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