Lucas Mavhube, 17, sat hiding under a clump of bushes in the dark, a few kilometres from the border gates at Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, waiting for an opportunity to slip through the fence that separates his country from South Africa.
"I waited and waited. My time came when I saw some soldiers go past the security gate, late in the night - the guards were distracted, and I then slipped through."
He is now in the South African border town of Musina, scratching a living as an "undocumented migrant."
Mavhube is among scores of Zimbabwean teenagers who risk their lives to slip through the security cordon on either side of the fence and cross the crocodile-infested Limpopo river that marks the border, motivated by the need to find jobs to uplift their families and a better life for themselves.
"After [crossing the river] there is a 12 km trek to the town of Musina. They try to keep to the bushes, away from the prying eyes of authority," said an aid worker with a local NGO that provides support to migrant Zimbabwean children. Mavhube was found wandering in the streets by one of the NGO's volunteers.
After his mother died in 1997, Mavhube dropped out of school in Chiredzi, a town in southern Zimbabwe. He did odd jobs when he could, while his grandmother, a vegetable vendor, supported three younger siblings.
"But there is no food now - the situation got very desperate," he said. "I thought I should leave so I can earn something in South Africa to help my family."
Zimbabwe is going through a severe economic crisis and facing serious food shortages due to recurring droughts and the government's fast-track land redistribution programme, which disrupted agricultural production and slashed export earnings.
Mavhube and five other Zimbabwean teenagers do odd jobs around Musina in an attempt to earn enough money to get to another South African city, preferably Johannesburg, where they think there are better opportunities.
"Often, children have other siblings, relatives or friends working in South African cities and they just pass through Musina. But children like Mavhube, who do not know anyone else in South Africa, hang around in Musina or Makhado [a neighbouring town]. We try to provide them with shelter, a place to bathe in, wash their clothes, play, study and plan their next move," an aid worker explained.
The NGO is aware of at least 100 Zimbabwean children who have crossed the border illegally since the beginning of this year. "These are children that we came to know of - there are probably many more who were smuggled in unnoticed," the aid worker said.
According to the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM), at least 2,000 Zimbabweans are deported from South Africa via Beitbridge every week.
"In 2003 the South African authorities deported 55,753 Zimbabweans without official documents. Figures for this year are likely to be higher, with 24,000 irregular Zimbabwean migrants being deported between January and March alone. Deportees are both male and female, and aged from in their teens and upwards, but the reason for deportation is always the lack of legal documentation," said IOM spokeswoman Nicola Simmonds.
"It is easier for teenage girls to cross the border - they often offer sex in exchange for transport to truck or combi [minibus] drivers - girls even as young as 14 years. It is also more difficult for authorities to track them down, as once they make it across the border they assume married identities, but who will marry a teenage boy?" remarked an aid worker.
There were few job opportunities for unskilled Zimbabweans back home, remarked Elias Gwamure, 16. "None of us could finish school, as we could not afford it, so there is little we can do."
Many teenagers in Beitbridge are waiting for a lift - preferably unnoticed - across the border. With their thumbs in the air, they line the sides of the highway through the town and almost 30 km beyond, while scores of adults and children sit at the petrol stations in town, begging for any foreign currency that could help buy them a trip out.
"I don't have a passport - most of us don't. Getting a lift is the only way out," said a waiting Zimbabwean teenager. They sit for hours and even days in the blazing sun, after having made it to Beitbridge from towns as far as 300 km away; they live off offerings from passers-by, or sell bags of oranges for local farmers.
Many of them have already had a brush with the South African authorities.
"Once caught, the Zimbabweans are transported to Beitbridge. They are usually denied access to their belongings after being caught, and so often arrive empty-handed and needing to bathe, eat, rest and receive counselling," said Simmonds.
According to IOM, many deportees often do not have enough funds to either attempt another crossing or return home, and usually remain in town.
In collaboration with the Zimbabwean and South African government, IOM is to set up a reception and support centre at the Beitbridge border in October, to provide humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwean migrants deported from South Africa.
"The reception centre, funded by the British government's Department for International Development (DFID), will help the deported migrants with transportation, food rations, basic healthcare, and information on HIV/AIDS and irregular migration issues, including human trafficking and smuggling," said Simmonds.
A tripartite dialogue between IOM and the ministries of home affairs in South Africa and Zimbabwe on issues of cross border migration will also be initiated, she added.
Although there are no reliable data on the number of undocumented Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe estimated that last year 1.2 million Zimbabweans were living across the border.
* The names of the children have been changed to protect their identities
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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