Botswana is adopting a two-pronged approach to tackle abuse of its immigration system by increasing the sophistication of travel documents, visas and work permits, and putting more boots on the ground to apprehend undocumented foreign nationals.
Zimbabweans escaping their country's continuing economic, political and social malaise - despite the formation of a unity government more than a year ago - have favoured neighbouring Botswana, one of southern Africa's most prosperous nations.
Letso Mpho, acting spokesman for Botswana's Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, told IRIN that workplace inspections would be "intensified" from 1 March 2010, and special immigration assistants would accompany police and home affairs officials to help identify undocumented foreign nationals.
The government has also begun introducing electronic online passports (e-passports), and the computerization of work and residence permits for all foreign nationals. The current passport is to be phased out in 2011.
"The ongoing e-passport project will improve the security features of the Botswana passport. The document is machine-readable - it will be difficult to fake or even tamper with it," Mpho said.
Britain, the former colonial power, has issued strong warnings to Botswana to improve its passport security systems or risk its citizens having to apply for visas to visit the UK.
In 2009 Britain withdrew South Africa's visa-on-demand privileges after raising concerns about the security of its identity documents and South Africans now have to apply for a visa ahead of travelling to the UK.
Zimbabwean nationals presenting a passport are allowed a maximum 90-day annual stay in Botswana and extensions can be granted on written requests, but Zimbabwean passports are both expensive and difficult to access, and many people migrating in search of work cannot afford to apply for one.
"From December 15, 2009 to January 15, 2010, in our South Central region, which includes such areas as Mochudi, Sikwane and Gaborone [the capital] we repatriated a total of 195 illegal immigrants," Mpho said.
"[Of these] 147 were males, 45 females and 3 were minors; all were from Zimbabwe. Prior to 15 December 2009 - that is, from January 2009 to December 14, 2009, we repatriated a total of 12,200 illegal immigrants in the same region. The numbers in our other regions like the Francistown region [bordering Zimbabwe] are even more."
Most of the undocumented foreign nationals were from Zimbabwe, but other countries of origin included China, Egypt, Somalia, India and Sudan. The number of undocumented migrants in Botswana is unofficially estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands.
"Other than the normal procedure of arresting culprits and handing foreign passports to the embassies of holders of such passports, the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, through the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, is engaged in two major projects ... the computerisation of the issuance of residence permits and visa, and the computerisation of passports and border control," Mpho said.
Arrest of permit dealers
The recent arrest of a Zimbabwean "permit dealer", Raymond Dube, who was feted by his fellow countrymen in Botswana for his ability to help many of them get work and residence permits, has created widespread concern.
|Many Batswana have been arrested or charged for aiding and abetting illegal immigrants. Some would act as witnesses to help foreigners acquire the national identity document – omang|
"When I came to Botswana last year [in 2009], he helped me secure a work and residence permit, using my emergency travel document. I had exceeded my days [I was allowed to be in Botswana], but he was so helpful. Now I am afraid they may blacklist all permits he facilitated," Nothando Ncube, a Gaborone hairdresser, told IRIN.
Dube appeared in court early last month facing 11 charges of issuing false documents, including work and residence permits, and those who received false documents have had them withdrawn. In January 2010 Zimbabwean national Peter Elton was charged with possession of counterfeit immigration stamps.
"These ones were unfortunate to have their documents detected and confiscated," Ncube said. "Many of us got our papers through Ray [Dube] and his colleagues, and it will be very hard for us when the authorities manage to detect the serial numbers of the permits and licenses he issued. I can assure you, thousands of people will be affected."
Local citizens are also being implicated in permit scams, including marriages of convenience to foreign nationals, but government has announced that it will review the automatic access to residence papers of non-nationals married to Botswana citizens.
"Many Batswana have been arrested or charged for aiding and abetting illegal immigrants. Some would act as witnesses to help foreigners acquire the national identity document – omang," Mpho said. "With an omang, the foreigner would be able to acquire other documents like the passport."