Near the coastal town of Mtwara, Tanzania’s border with Mozambique is marked only by the River Ruvuma which is wide and relatively shallow at this point just before it drains into the Indian Ocean. Young men loll in small, wooden boats checking their cell phones and waiting for passengers to ferry across to the other side, but business has been slow in the last two months since groups of migrants desperate to complete a journey that began thousands of kilometres to the north stopped arriving at the river’s banks.
“For the last two or three months we haven’t had big movements like we had between February and April,” said Henry Chacha, an immigration officer from the nearby Kilambo border post. “For the last two or three weeks, we haven’t had any migrants.”
At the height of the activity around Mtwara in early 2011, the migrants - most of them from Ethiopia and Somalia - typically arrived in groups of 100 or more on boats operated by smugglers, usually from the Kenyan port city of Mombasa.
According to one Somali migrant who made the trip, the groups were dropped off near Mtwara, and then found their way to the river delta where they paid the waiting fishermen in money or goods for passage to the other side. From there, they trekked through thick forest for several days before crossing into Mozambique and arriving at Palma, a small coastal town where the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the government’s National Institute for Refugee Assistance (INAR) had set up an informal camp behind the local police station to cater for the migrants’ basic needs before transporting them to Maratane refugee camp in Nampula Province.
For most, Maratane was merely a place to rest, regroup and make contact with their smugglers’ agents who would help them reach their final destination: South Africa - the only country in the region where asylum-seekers and refugees have freedom of movement and the right to work and run businesses rather than being confined to camps.
But around May of this year, the movement of migrants from the Horn of Africa across the River Ruvuma began reversing in direction. According to immigration authorities in Mtwara, groups of migrants, stripped of their belongings and clothing, and many bearing the marks of severe beatings, began appearing near the river.
“We saw them at the delta, naked,” said Hamidu Mkambala, the regional immigration officer for Mtwara. “We gave them food and clothing and then we took them to a court of law and then prison. We don’t have any other shelters for them.”
About 500 Ethiopians and 50 Somalis are now being held at Mtwara prison, while about 600 Ethiopian and 170 Somali migrants are in other prisons around Tanzania.
Most of those interviewed at Mtwara prison told similar stories of weeks at sea on overloaded boats that either dropped them off in Mtwara or took them all the way to the north coast of Mozambique. From there they were picked up by police but instead of being transferred to Maratane, they were robbed of their possessions, beaten and then dumped next to (or in) the River Ruvuma.
One young Somali woman recounted a harrowing month-long journey from Mombasa to Mozambique on rough seas. At one point the crew of the boat she was travelling on forced three of her fellow passengers off the over-loaded vessel and into the sea where they were left to drown. When they finally reached Mozambique, the migrants were greeted by locals who “took all they had”.
“A white man came and put us in a mini-bus and took us to another place near a police station,” she continued. “He told the police to take us to the refugee camp but after he left, they beat us and fired bullets over our heads,” she said, crying and showing a badly swollen leg that had not healed two months after one of the policemen struck it with the barrel of his gun.
One of the Ethiopian prisoners at Mtwara said four of the men in his group had died after they were beaten so severely by the Mozambican police that they drowned when they were thrown into the River Ruvuma.
Others survived by waiting for a low tide and then forming a human chain to wade to the other side of the river where they were discovered by local villagers.
“They came from nowhere with no clothes,” a woman from one of the villages near the river told IRIN. “They said they came from Mozambique. We fed them and then showed them the way to the immigration office in Kilambo.”
Small border posts like the one at Kilambo are ill-equipped to deal with large groups of naked and hungry migrants, most of whom cannot speak the local language. “We have no budget to feed them,” said Mkambala. “We feed them from our own pockets and give them clothing.”
After a day or two staying in the open outside the immigration office in Kilambo, the migrants were transported to the police station in Mtwara for processing before being taken to court and then to the now overcrowded prison.
UNHCR has confirmed the migrants’ accounts and called on the Mozambican government to stop the deportations which contravene the country’s obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees.
However, at a meeting on 16 September convened by local NGO the Mozambican Human Rights League, which also has evidence of abuses against migrants found near the Tanzanian border, representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior denied that irregular deportations were taking place, while at the same time describing the migrants as a threat to national security.
“It’s a very clear sign that the position of the government is becoming stricter on the issue,” commented Matteo Gillerio, a field officer with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Mozambique who was present at the meeting.
According to Mtwara regional immigration officer Mkambala, a recent meeting between immigration chiefs from Mozambique and Tanzania to discuss the irregular deportations did not end in any agreement, but the situation may have resolved itself, at least temporarily, as smugglers appear to have started circumventing the trouble spot between Palma and Mtwara.
Chacha, the immigration officer at Kilambo (on the Tanzanian side), said no migrants had been seen near the river since July, and Gillerio said the camp in Palma was also currently empty. However, he worried the movement would resume in November with the start of the rainy season which would bring improved conditions at sea and make it more difficult for the Mozambican police to patrol border areas.
“The [refugee] camps in Kenya are filling up,” he pointed out. “I think when they’re in a condition to travel, they will, because they’re not going to find jobs in Kenya.”
For the Ethiopians imprisoned in Tanzania, their journey will soon end where it started. An IOM initiative funded by the Japanese government, brought a delegation from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Tanzania in August to document those being held in prisons and arrange their voluntary return home starting from the end of September.
“All of them told us they want to go back home,” said Ethiopia’s director of Foreign Affairs, Melaku Bedada, who formed part of the delegation. He added that his Ministry would be engaging their Mozambican counterparts in a discussion about the abuses the migrants experienced in that country. “A person has to be treated humanely, even if they’re illegal,” he said.
The fate of the Somali prisoners is less clear. In the absence of a functioning government in Somalia to negotiate their release, members of Dar es Salaam’s local Somali community have been advocating on their behalf. Ahmed Ally, a leader in that community, said that after repeated calls to various relevant agencies and government departments, immigration officers had informed him that the Somalis would be released soon and taken to the Kenyan border. From there, he said, Somali elders have agreed to pay their transport to Nairobi where they will likely find refuge among that city’s sizeable Somali community.
Most of the imprisoned migrants IRIN spoke to declared they would not attempt the journey again.
“If I go home, I will just pray for rain. I won’t come to Mozambique again,” said one young man who left Ethiopia because the drought had made it impossible for him to farm.
But the young Somali woman with the injured leg insisted she did not want to go home. “There is still fighting there,” she said. “I want to go somewhere peaceful… maybe South Africa.”