Zimbabwe’s prisons are holding about 550 Malawian citizens who were caught trying to sneak into South Africa without proper travel documents, it has emerged.
The Malawians are being detained with criminals while awaiting deportation to their country.
Zimbabwe, unlike countries such as South Africa, does not have holding facilities for immigrants awaiting deportation and they are sent to prisons.
According to authorities, 317 Malawians are in prisons in the capital Harare, 83 are in a prison in the Midlands city of Gweru, 82 in Chivhu and 86 in Mvuma.
The majority of the immigrants had no intention of staying in Zimbabwe as they were caught en-route to South Africa.
Malawi has since sought help from international institutions such as the International Migration Organisation (IOM) to facilitate the return of its citizens.
IOM Zimbabwe spokesperson Fadzai Nyamande-Pangeti confirmed that the organisation was considering the request from the Malawian government.
“We are supporting the government (of Zimbabwe) through the provision of varied logistical support as we always do where funding is available,” Ms Nyamande-Pangeti said.
“We cannot provide any other details on the progress of this operation or how long these Malawian nationals have been in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs ministry spokesperson Livit Mugejo said: “These are not prisoners, they were only intercepted and found to have inadequate papers.
“The embassy of Malawi is processing their papers for the to go back to Malawi.”
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission says it is not ideal for immigrants to be locked up in prisons with criminals as this was a violation of human rights violations.
Immigrants from across Africa use Zimbabwe as an entry point into South Africa due to the country’s porous borders.
In its report for July, IOM said the majority of immigrants that left Zimbabwe during the period used illegal entry points.
“The majority of outflows were through irregular crossing points whilst inflows were mostly through formal crossing points,” IOM said.
“Out of the total migrants observed, 58 percent were males whilst 42 percent were females.
“Seventy percent of these migrants were between the ages of 20 and 49 with the majority (33 percent) travelling to conduct short term local economic activities.”
South Africa is a magnet for African immigrants fleeing wars and poverty in their own countries because of its relative political and economic stability.
Tens of thousands of Zimbabwean immigrants have also found economic refuge in the neighbouring country.