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Centre for illegal immigrants

Staff Writer
FRANCISTOWN: Except for a few incidents that caught the attention of the locals and the international community, the Centre for Illegal Immigrants here has been a relatively quiet place.

It was only about two years back or so when hell broke lose at the centre when some asylum seekers engaged in a protest claiming that the authorities were not granting them their wish.

A day after the incident, a Burundian asylum seeker was shot and killed for causing mayhem and failing to obey instructions to back off. He was shot and later died of bullet wounds after jumping the fence into a nogo area.

Situated off town in the Gerald Estate, the detention centre or holding centre as it is also known has now become one of the most frequented places in town. Although there is no statistics supporting this view, this multi-million facility has now become the most visited place by government authorities and others.

Ever since the advent of the Zimbabwean elections on March 29, whose presidential results took as long as five weeks to be released, Zimbabweans associated with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have been forced to cross into Botswana en masse seeking refuge from the authorities.

It seems the Botswana government is well informed on the movement of asylum seekers, as it has been well prepared for any eventuality.

The number of Zimbabweans fleeing political harassment back home started off at about five and has now grown up to nearly 200. It is also expected to grow to high levels as the Francistown District Commissioner (DC) and the Refugee Advisory Committee (RAC) chairman, Richard Oaitse has warned.

Authorities from the departments of Immigration, Prisons, Botswana Police, District Administration, the UNHCR, Botswana Red Cross and others have become regulars at the place.

From the entrance of this facility, which occupies some vast land, there is massive evidence that the government should have spent a fortune to construct the facility. Generally, locals call this facility "Teronko ya Ma Zimbabwe" or a prison facility for Zimbabweans.

Well, you can't blame the locals for this view because majority of the people who go in and out of this facility are Zimbabwean illegal immigrants. Therefore, it is their facility.
Wednesday afternoon, the Mmegi team arrives at the centre to follow on the story of new arrivals of Zimbabweans who were waiting to be screened by the RAC before they could be taken to the Dukwi refugee camp.

At the main entrance of the facility, a young warder asks us a few questions before allowing us to go in. Funnily, the official telephone for the sentry is not functioning and he is forced to allow us without even screening if we could be carrying any weapons or just anything that could be dangerous.

He guides us to another gate where we informed a number of officers on duty that we were meeting the DC Oaitse and some members of the RAC who were on

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lunch at the time. We were not searched perhaps, because we had introduced ourselves as journalists from Mmegi newspaper. But, was this sufficient to render the warders not to ask us any further questions?

There we were in the midst of the men that mattered at the facility and the Zimbabwean asylum seekers.

At the second entrance of the centre, there were many illegals that were reportedly waiting to be repatriated home. I remember one of the women joking with a tall and talkative Sergeant asking him: "We are going home and some of you are going to suffer because there will be no one to buy sex from."

This was irresistible and sent me and colleague Moreri Sejakgomo into some bout of laughter until we reached some senior prison officials who were later instructed to call the asylum seekers for us.

More officers from other government departments poured in on different missions keeping the place very busy.

If the Francistown mall was all paved like the Centre for Illegal Immigrants, it would have the potential to even attract tourists. The whole place is well done and cared for.
We finally met the asylum seekers in the reddish parade square behind the hall where members of the RAC were questioning some of them.

But visitors never stopped from coming in. We were in the middle of our interviews when we spotted a team of men on dark glasses led by the director of the Directorate on Intelligence and Security, Isaac Kgosi arriving.

For days on end, prison officers have indicated that they have been seeing a lot of people coming in for different reasons. Most importantly, officers who are concerned with the welfare of displaced people like the Red Cross and the UNHCR are regulars at the place.

Unlike most of the prison facilities across the country, the centre has various sporting code facilities to, amongst others, keep those held to remain fit through exercise. In the past, this has left convicts held at the state prison feeling that they should be transferred to the better facility and have asylum seekers held at the state prison instead.Although there are many nationalities held at the centre as political asylum seekers from various countries, there is no evidence yet of overcrowding.

Most importantly, asylum seekers from Zimbabwe are held in marquee tents temporarily until they move out to Dukwi.

Francistown DC, Oaitse raised alarm early this week that there was a likelihood of more Zimbabweans associated with the MDC coming into the country if the political situation back home cannot stabilise soon.

He might have been right because there has been a sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers. Initially there were only nine of them at the centre and a week later they are about 183.



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