– June 17 2020
Support and protection for smuggled migrant children in Botswana
For four years, Mpho Gakedirelwe, a social worker at SOS Children’s Villages Tlokweng in Botswana, has worked with children smuggled across the border to Botswana. She has heard many disturbing stories of suffering and child rights violations as they journeyed to find their parents who have migrated in desperate need of work and to sustain their livelihood.
It is Mpho’s job to build relations with these children, restore hope and build their resilience. In this interview, Mpho sheds light on how child migrants find protection and love in an SOS family before they reunite with their biological families.
Which countries do the smuggled children come from and why do they leave their home countries?
The children come from Zambia and Somalia, but the highest number is from Zimbabwe. Hard economic times has forced these children’s parents to leave Zimbabwe and irregularly migrate to Botswana and South Africa in search of work. During the school holidays, especially in December, which is our highest smuggling season, the children migrate too in search of their parents. The smuggler often accompanies the children on the journey, but in some other cases, the bus or truck driver transporting the children is the smuggler. Children are smuggled because they do not have legal travelling documentation. We believe that the children’s parents pay a hefty sum for smuggling services to the destination country.
What dangers do the children face during the migration?
Smuggling is a crime and the perpetrators know that, so they work hard not to be caught. This makes the travelling conditions risky and dangerous for the children. We had two Somali children who journeyed in a truck that transported goods from Somalia to South Africa via Botswana. When the truck approached a police checkpoint during the night, the children would lie down flat at the back of the truck and have goods piled over their bodies to conceal them. During the day, the children alighted far away from the checkpoint, and walked in the bush where the patrolling police could not see them. The truck driver then drove past the checkpoint and waited for them at a distance. Then the frightened children would catch up with the truck and climb back in. The smuggling process poses great risks to the safety and well-being of the children; unaccompanied minors are especially vulnerable to abuse on the way.
Children from neighbouring Zimbabwe take the bus and drop off at a designated spot. Afterwards they walk long distances in the bush, risking attacks from wild animals or harm from patrolling soldiers. They have to walk quickly to spend as little time on the road as possible; this really strains the migrants who range from two to 19 years old. Older children carry the younger ones to help the group move quickly. The smuggler accompanies the children and knows the routes well. Once inside the country, they walk further to catch another bus that takes them to their destination.
How do these children end up in the care of SOS Children’s Villages?
The police, after identifying the smuggled children, contact the social and community development (S&CD) office. The social worker from this department then contacts SOS Children’s Villages Tlokweng for placement of the rescued children. Like all other children, they need care and protection while the relevant authorities work on their case. The SOS Children’s Village is obligated to ensure the newly arrived children enjoy the same quality care and safety as the children admitted from the community.
In what state of mind are the children when you first meet them?
The children are often so terrified and traumatised by the migration process, and it is upon me to assess each child and help them open up to me. The children at first speak hesitantly and fearfully, but once I gain their trust I am able to convince them not to lose hope of seeing their parents and of returning home one day. In the meantime, they should accept their new home and their new mother. I build their resilience through psychosocial support, and I empower them with skills they will use to cope in a foreign land and with foreign people.
We had a case of Zimbabwean children early last year (2019) who were disappointed to find themselves at an SOS Children’s Village, whereas they were longing to see their parents. They were so upset that they threatened to escape at night. I was able to calm them and help them realise that staying with an SOS family was for their own protection. I also assured them that as soon as police investigations were over, they would meet their parents. It is not easy for a child to cope with such deep emotions of longing for their parents; but they adjust with the support and love they receive from the SOS mothers.
What are the hopes of the children and young people?
The older children hope to get back to their countries of origin safely, and continue with their education. They dream of a better life, where they can have safe access to visit their parents wherever they are. Most of these children remain in the care of their relatives back at home, while their parents are away working.
How does the reunification process work?
Once the police trace the alleged parent, the government social welfare officer conducts DNA tests to ensure that the person is telling the truth. If the tests results are positive, the magistrate gives the order for the child to reunite with the parent and both are repatriated to their country of origin. The parent is freed with a warning to not cross borders again without authorisation and valid documentation or they will face jail time. The court order then discharges the child from SOS care.
Parents sometimes also get in touch themselves. When parents or family of origin cannot be found for reunification, the court instructs that the child remain in the care of SOS until the case is resolved.
Tell us of a difficult smuggling case you have handled – why was it difficult and what was the outcome?
A case I found difficult was of the two Somali girls. They said that they came to Botswana to reunite with their elder sister who lived as a refugee at Dukwi camp [the largest refugee camp in Botswana]. It was hard to believe that without any legal documents or anything we would be able to find their sister at the camp. The police initially suspected trafficking, that maybe the 12-year-old came to Botswana for marriage or child labour. When the children arrived at the SOS Children’s Village, some unknown people came to the village and inquired about the children, while others claimed to know them. We were very suspicious and had to take drastic measures to protect the girls. We engaged the police to patrol and guard our premises because the 12 year old was even threatening to run away.
The S&CD department involved the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to help the Botswana government investigate the case. My part was to provide counselling to the children. The police department took DNA tests of the alleged sister at Dukwi refugee camp and found a positive match. The children then reunited with their sister and repatriated to Somalia.
Why has SOS Children’s Village not received child smuggling cases in the recent past?
The government has stepped up border patrols, enforced anti-trafficking laws that calls for stiffer penalties, and increased public awareness campaigns to discourage smugglers and traffickers from crossing the border. This could probably explain why the SOS village has not received new cases for almost a year. We have so far dealt with 62 smuggled children since 2015. However, considering the clandestine nature of people smuggling, it is difficult to say the extent to which Botswana is confronted by this challenge.