The issue of non-citizens, especially illegal economic immigrants who leave their countries of origin for other countries with better economic opportunities such as the United States (US) in the Americas and South Africa in the SADC region, has taken a heavy toll on the economies of the countries. Following the recent sentencing of a Zimbabwean illegal immigrant at the Magistrates Courts, Mmegi Correspondent, LEBOGANG MOSIKARE, reports that the implications of illegal immigrants are multifaceted
FRANCISTOWN: There are volumes of official documents that show that non-citizens, especially Zimbabweans who were deported from Botswana, continue to defy Botswana’s Immigration Act by re-entering the country illegally. While this is happening and some people may be unaware, Botswana’s Immigration Act imposes heavy fines and/or sentences on any person who ultra-vires the Act.
According to Botswana’s Immigration Act (2010) any person who fails to comply with this Act commits an offence and is liable to a fine not exceeding P10,000, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years or to both.
From my observations over many years, the courts in Botswana have been slow to pass heavy fines and/or sentences to illegal immigrants, mostly Zimbabweans for emphasis, who contravene the Immigration Act after listening to their pleas in mitigation following their convictions.
In most cases, the Zimbabweans plead dire economic and political circumstances as their main reason for entering Botswana using ungazetted points of entry.
Scholars who have studied the patterns of immigration in Botswana and South Africa posit that the Southern African region in sub-Saharan Africa is the destination of choice for most immigrants (legal and illegal) because of its relatively high levels of economic and social development.
“The most attractive countries in the SADC region are South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. While economic factors are not the sole motivator of illegal immigration, they are the dominant ones. The increasing outflow of Zimbabwean illegal labour migrants to Botswana and South Africa is partly in response to the downturn of the Zimbabwean economy in the 1990s,” said an expert in the department of Population Studies at the University of Botswana, Eugene Campbell.
In a paper entitled,“Reflections on Illegal Immigration in Botswana and South Africa”, Campbell said that while South Africa, Botswana and Namibia may be the preferred destinations for immigration, unlawful immigration has inherent issues of concern that should be addressed.
He said: “Largely due to its notoriety, illegal immigration remains an area of serious concern to governments throughout the world. Its magnitude partly explains why several governments are reluctant to adopt less restrictive immigration policies. But it is also due to governments’ complacency over the subject.” Campbell’s observation concerning the issue above is spot on.
In the past, the governments of Zimbabwe and Botswana were embroiled in a diplomatic tiff over the issue of flogging of Zimbabweans.
The diplomatic impasse arose after some Zimbabweans were flogged in Botswana after being convicted of illegally crossing into Botswana and other minor offences. However, the diplomatic stalemate was later resolved after Gaborone informed Harare that corporal punishment in Botswana is enshrined in statute books and was not exclusively meted out as punishment to Zimbabweans as they have reported the matter to their government.
Over the years, as Campbell has observed, Botswana and South Africa were rightly or wrongly categorised as countries that have been accused of applying draconian measures in the treatment of apprehended illegal immigrants.
Also, throughout the years, the presidencies of Sir Ketumile Masire, Festus Mogae, Ian Khama and now Mokgweetsi Masisi have been grappling with costs running into millions of pula annually in expenses incidental to repatriating illegal Zimbabweans to their country.
In Francistown, hardly a day at the Magistrates or Customary Courts passes without a Zimbabwean illegal immigrant being found guilty of entering Botswana illegally.
This week, the Commissioner of Botswana Police Service (BPS), Keabetswe Makgophe also expressed deep concern about the high number of illegal immigrants in Botswana.
When briefing the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in Parliament although he did not single out Zimbabwe by name, it is common cause that Makgophe was referring to Zimbabwe since Zimbabwe is the country with the highest number of illegal immigrants in Botswana.
Makgophe decried: “Due to COVID-19, we currently only detain people who face serious offences such as murder. For other offences, we release the detainees under the condition that we will follow them up. We have even scaled-down our usual operations on illegal immigrants. However, this is risky because their numbers keep on increasing hence the rise in crime incidents.”
Former Magistrate Dumisani Basupi, who is now an Assistant Registrar of the High Court, once lamented that illegal immigrants in Botswana were in some cases not only engaged in serious offences such as murder and permanently depriving people of their hard earned properties amongst other crimes, but were unduly enjoying benefits that are normally reserved for locals and people who are in Botswana legally.
Just like Campbell, Magistrate Thabang Chokwe this week highlighted how the issue of illegal immigration has the potential to ignite diplomatic rows between neighbouring countries. Chokwe touched on that issue when sentencing Melody Nkomo who was fined P1,500 for having entered Botswana illegally or six months in jail in default of payment. However, Nkomo escaped imprisonment because she had already spent more than six months in prison. Nkomo’s conviction in relation to unlawfully entering Botswana was triggered by her arrest in connection to another charge of allegedly cultivating a plant (dagga) for narcotic use.
When sentencing Nkomo for entering Botswana illegally, Chokwe said that issues of illegal immigration have the potential of stoking diplomatic tensions between friendly nations.
Citing the issue in which some Botswana Defence Force (BDF) soldiers killed four men from Namibia who had allegedly entered Botswana illegally in order to fish last year which matter caused diplomatic tensions between Gaborone and Windhoek- Chokwe said that the courts are therefore, enjoined to pass sentences that will act as deterrents to would-be-offenders.
Chokwe added that if the court did not pass proper sentences, this will give border jumpers the carte blanche to cross borders as they please. While illegal immigrants are oblivious to the consequences of their acts or omissions and are in most cases forced by economic pressures in their countries of origin to unlawfully move to other countries, concerted actions should be taken by countries to prevent people from unnecessarily migrating, according to Campbell.
In addition, as Campbell has noted, while illegal immigrants are generally perceived to have crossed a country’s border without required documents, a substantial number of such persons enter the country with appropriate documents.
“Students, previously employed persons whose work and residence permits have expired, tourists, refugees and visiting family members do constitute sources of illegal immigration,” Campbell explained.
The reliability of illegal immigration data, according to Campbell, is also contestable because available statistics cover only those who were apprehended.
Campbell’s observation regarding the issue above is also spot on since in Botswana, a substantial number of illegal immigrants are living within our midst off the radar of authorities tasked with the responsibilities of apprehending and deporting them.