Bodies tentatively identified as adults being secretly transported to South Africa on perilous ‘southern route’
Dozens of Ethiopian people whose remains were found in mass graves in northern Malawi last month most likely suffocated to death while being secretly transported, investigators and campaigners believe.
The tragedy came amid a spate of incidents underlining the dangers faced by tens of thousands of people who entrust their lives to criminal networks that promise passage to South Africa, the most developed country on the continent.
Authorities in Malawi discovered 29 bodies in two graves in the remote Mtangatanga forest reserve in the northern district of Mzimba last month. These have now been tentatively identified as the remains of migrants aged between 25 and 40 on their way to South Africa from Ethiopia.
Compared with the plight of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean or the deserts of northern Africa, the dangers facing those moving within the continent receives limited attention, even though the “southern route” – as the 5,000km journey from east Africa to South Africa is known – is as perilous as any other.
“All irregular migration routes are dangerous, and the southern route is no exception,” said Dr Ayla Bonfiglio, the east and southern Africa head at the Mixed Migration Centre.
Campaigners fear the true death toll on the southern route is much greater than currently thought.
“There are thousands and thousands in transit … There could be so many [dead] we don’t know about,” said Caleb Thole, national coordinator at the Malawi Network against Trafficking.
In a report earlier this year, the IOM noted that those travelling on the southern route faced “harsh experiences including violence, exploitation, abuse and a severe lack of access to basic needs and services”.
Police in Mozambique last week found almost 100 people hiding in an empty tanker. Local officials told reporters that the men and 10 women had agreed to pay 2,500 Rand (£110) each to the driver to be taken to South Africa.
One told local reporters: “We left Malawi inside the tanker. Our destination was South Africa to look for jobs. In our country, life is tough. That is why we tried at all costs to go to South Africa.”
Two years ago, immigration authorities in Mozambique discovered the remains of 64 Ethiopian men who had suffocated in a sealed shipping container on the back of a truck believed to be travelling from Malawi to Zimbabwe. The final destination of the victims was thought to be South Africa.
Officials and activists in Malawi, a key staging post on the southern route, believe the victims whose remains were found in the mass graves found died in a similar tragedy. Early examination suggests the deaths occurred in late September, probably from suffocation.
A police spokesperson said authorities were alerted to the mass graves by villagers in the Mzimba area, about 155 miles (250km) north of the capital, Lilongwe, who had been collecting wild honey in a forest.
Thole said the forest was favoured by smugglers because it was remote and inaccessible. “This is a place where people can stop and do what they want. Our borders are porous and law enforcement officials are aiding and abetting this traffic,” he said.
Earlier this year, one of Malawi’s political parties, United Transformation Movement, suspended its regional secretary amid claims she had used a party vehicle to transport people into the country illegally.
A hub for trafficking is Dzaleka, a sprawling refugee camp abot 50km from Lilongwe, the capital city.
The camp, which was built decades ago to provide shelter for refugees fleeing genocide and war in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, now houses more than 48,000 people from east and southern African countries – four times its initial capacity.
In June, an investigation by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Malawian police revealed widespread exploitation of men, women and children by a highly organised international syndicate based in the camp. Undercover UNODC staff witnessed what they described as “a kind of Sunday market, where people come to buy children who were then exploited in situations of forced labour and prostitution”.
Inhabitants of Dzaleka told the Guardian that traffickers used the camp as “a transit place for migrants they are smuggling to South Africa”.
A community leader who asked not to be identified said there were “bosses” there who ran networks spanning the region. “They work with people from Ethiopia and they have their people all over …. Here in Malawi they work with Malawians including taxi drivers, immigration officers and police officers,” he said.
They added that though the shipping containers were the most dangerous mode of transport, other migrants had died after falling ill when weakened by lack of food and dehydration after trekking through “the remote and wild parts of the bush to cross borders”.
“The way they transport them and feed them, they can only give them bread and some vegetables. Last time, two people died because of lack of food. They came to Dzeleka with a group of about 40 and two people passed away. The bosses paid us to bury them. They were transported at night and we buried them at night,” he told the Guardian.
There are increasing reports of abductions of those being transported, who are only freed after families pay substantial ransoms to traffickers.
Abdissa Bayissa, a community leader in Johannesburg, said that though families often paid money in advance to major smugglers in Ethiopia who were in contact with counterparts in South Africa, other less significant actors often sought to make further cash by exploiting Ethiopian migrants and refugees on the way.
“It becomes a relay, with the migrants taken from one to another agent and each charging their own money. They hijack them and demand ransom money,” he said.
Abductions often occur immediately after people have been smuggled across the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa – after weeks of travelling from east Africa.
“The kidnappers wait for them and then hide them and send to their relatives asking for more money … It is big business. Even police and immigration officials are [involved],” Bayissa told the Guardian.
The IOM report found that close to 51,000 Ethiopian migrants had gone missing since 2016. According to official statistics, 4,265 deaths and 1,707 disappearances from the districts of Hadiya and Kembata Tembaro were recorded along the southern route to South Africa between 2012 and 2019.
An overwhelming number of migrants said they had experienced a severe lack of food, water or shelter on their journey, the IOM researchers found. Most had suffered abuse, violence, assault or torture, while one in four had been asked to find additional money for bribes, despite already paying an average of US$5,000 for the journey.
One suspected recent victim is Osama Saleh Mohammed from Amhara province, close to the frontline in the conflict between Tigrayan and federal Ethiopian forces.
The 22-yearold mobile phone parts salesman disappeared shortly after telling his brother in Johannesburg that he had been taken across the border into South Africa in September, after flying from Ethiopia to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. His family have since received a series of demands from anonymous callers for 100,000 South African rand (£4,750) for his release.
“He called to say he was across the border and then said he had been hijacked. When they called me, I told them we don’t have the money and they rang our mother and told her they would kill him. But we still don’t have the money and we are just praying now,” said Amir Saleh Mohammed, a 27-year-old taxi driver in the South African commercial capital. “It is very painful.”