Desperate Malawians flock to South Africa as economic migrants: 1,000 held at detention centre

More than 1 000 illegal Malawian immigrants are currently being held at the Lindela Repatriation Centre, South Africa’s only detention centre for undocumented migrants, and their numbers are increasing in what is seen as a reflection of deepening economic hardship in their home country.

Malawian immigrants come in the hope of finding jobs - but if they don’t have the proper papers, they face arrest, detention and repatriation.

Malawian immigrants come in the hope of finding jobs – but if they don’t have the proper papers, they face arrest, detention and repatriation.

“Malawians are flocking to South Africa every day and the numbers are growing,” says Chrissie Kaponda, the Malawian high commissioner to South Africa.

“Most of them say they want to find jobs, yet they lack proper documentation. The situation is very worrisome.”

Kaponda says she understands that 45% of those held at the centre come from Malawi.

Lindela, situated in Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg, is managed by Bosasa Operations on behalf of the home affairs department.

Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest countries, has experienced major economic difficulties since the suspension of donor aid in late 2013 in the wake of the Cashgate scandal, which involved the looting of public finances, potentially to the tune of more than R500-million.

More than half of Malawi’s citizens live below the poverty line, and at least 2.3-million are estimated to suffer from food insecurity.

More than 85% depend on subsistence agriculture, which was hit by extensive flooding in early 2014 and since then by drought.

This in turn has affected the price of maize – a staple food for millions – which currently stands at about R400 for 50kg, compared with R260 at the same time last year.

Wayne Ncube, an attorney who does strategic litigation work for Lawyers for Human Rights in South Africa, says that, in the past, most of those held at Lindela had been Zimbabweans, but Malawians were now in the majority.

“There have been many arrests since May last year, and it’s true that the number of Malawians affected has grown,” he says.

“We are working on various issues relating to the welfare of the migrants. [And] we are working with the South African Human Rights Commission on investigating certain deaths that happened at Lindela,” he says, declining to provide more details as the deaths are still under investigation.

In May last year, in the wake of a nationwide outbreak of xenophobic violence, the government announced the launch of Operation Fiela.

Touted as an anti-crime operation, it resulted in the repatriation to their home countries of 15 000 undocumented immigrants by September 2015, according to the minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe.

Home affairs department spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete says that 1 154 Malawians are currently being held at Lindela. Asked why the numbers of Malawians held there appear to have spiked, he said the authorities assumed that many illegal immigrants were in South Africa “for economic reasons”.

Tshwete denies claims that some detainees were being held beyond the legal term because of slow progress in processing their cases.

“The maximum time we can hold a person is 120 days, and no one stays longer than that,” he says, adding: “We ensure that all persons detained for illegal migration are treated according to the highest human rights standards.”

The repatriation process requires that the South African government provide transportation and security for the transfer of people to their countries of origin.

Kaponda says that the cost of deporting Malawians was contributing to the slow deportation of some immigrants, especially those from countries that do not share a border with South Africa.

“It is easier to repatriate illegal migrants to countries with which South Africa shares physical borders. Air transport is expensive. It costs over R1.2-million just for 100 illegal migrants to reach Malawi.”

She says that until six months ago repatriations were done by aeroplane, but this had been stopped because of the worsening economic climate in South Africa.

The practice now is to deport people using road transport, involving a minimum of four buses in convoy.

Ben Kaluwa, a University of Malawi economist, confirms that tough economic conditions in the country has left people – particularly young people – with no option but “to try to find greener pastures elsewhere”.

“Our government is failing to provide the right level of public services, including such basic necessities as education, medicine and food,” he says, adding that the rapid growth of Malawi’s population is also a factor, as the country’s economy is failing to absorb new entrants to the labour market.

“We could say that more than 50% of young people [in Malawi] are unemployed,” he says, adding that the migrant labour system, in which many Malawians were lured to South Africa’s mining industry in the past, has contributed to a mindset among Malawians that South Africa offers a solution to their financial woes.– The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. 

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14 thoughts on “Desperate Malawians flock to South Africa as economic migrants: 1,000 held at detention centre”

  1. Truth must prevail says:

    Do u comment just to please ur political TATAS or whosoever you call them, if Kamuzu and The democratic stupid presidents are the same why calling for democracy,now compare who had a vision between Kamuzu and ur so called 4 democratic wise presidents?Panthawi yakusapenya kwanuko Kamuzu anapanga chani?Panthawi yakupenya kwanuo anthu 4 apanga chiani?

  2. Kadakwiza says:

    This is very bad. Malawians are all the world because of poverty. Malawians are all over the world looking for everything such as, food, clothes, education and jobs. All because of poor leadership we had since 1964. We Malawians must blame ourselves for our poverty. We have contributed so much for this poverty because we let our leaders to cheat us, rob us oppress us yet we keep quiet. As if we don’t have a parliament. Let us wake up and rise and get rid of these selfish leaders. Revolution is the answer to Malawi.

  3. Winston Msowoya says:

    The unfortunate trend seems not to abate,and as such,our young people are exposed to dangerous options far away from their homeland and we can not extend our hands as far as South Africa to set them free from eminent dangers.This is the ramifications of an inept leadership of Muthalika and his ” gang of looters”.As we are now,we do not have stable and well to do institutions to control government machinery and its leaders hence,the egregious falling or collapse of the whole nation.The so-called leaders have abandoned the welfare of Malawians and they are busy looting tax-payers’ funds at will,while the government has absolutely become as ineffective as their stagnant brains.There is no moral campus whatsoever.Jokes aside,Muthalika has badly failed to run the government of the people,by the people and for the people and worst still,he doesn’t know where to start and where to end,he has driven our loving Malawi into unknown destination.GOD DEFEND US FROM THIS ABODE OF SATAN!!!!!

  4. Winston Msowoya says:

    Malawians remember what your government under despotic Mphonongo Banda did to our South African brothers and sisters during their liberation struggles,It is the people of Zambia,Tanzania,Mozambique,Zimbabwe who patriotically helped the people of ( AZANIA) South Africa to liberate their country.Then,Mphonongo Banda’s neo- colonialist puppet regime,joined the imperialist Band-Wagon to oppress our brothers and sisters of AZANIA.What South Africans are doing to our people now is something we call TIT for TAT.whether you like it or not.How would a country under 52 years of nationhood shamelessly fails to creat jobs and feeds its own people? As Iam writing this piece,millions of Malawians are struggling to feed their stomachs.What goes around,comes around.

  5. chikwanje says:

    deportation has been there in South Africa but that can not change mindset of poor people,as i am talking today 3 full buses have passed here(tete) heading to RSA in searching for greener pasture.Even malawi do whatever possible to stop people going is wasting time and resources coz nobody wants to die poor

  6. MERCEDES says:


  7. Namarokoro says:

    Dear Ms Enelless Nyale,
    Some corrections to your article:
    1. The increase of Malawian numbers at Lindela Repatriation Camp is not just because of the economic issue in Malawi. South Africa has also been battling with its economy. At the same time the Malawi kwacha lost against the dollar, the Rand lost from 1$ to R11 up to 1$ to R16. It is easier and cheaper for South Africa to repatriate illegal immigrants to Mozambique, Zimbabwe, etc. because of the proximity. South Africa is running out of funds to repatriate Malawians. Remember this is budget is allocated and the finance minister has been cutting the budgets due to economic constraints. And this is tax payers money. And remember that Zimbabweans have skills amnesty (Quarter Permit) which allows them to work in RSA easier than Malawians.
    2. The comment from the High Commissioner if she said that it is rubbish. She does not understand the situation in South Africa
    3. There are some transporters especially from Mangochi who transport young people from Malawi and assist them to travel to South Africa some without passports and no where to stay. These are the ones that are easily picked up by Home Affairs in the streets of Johannesburg.
    4. Malawians should be told the truth that life in South Africa is not as rosy as they think when they are at home.
    5. The numbers at Lindela has little to do with the economy in Malawi. Angola, Nigeria, Mozambique, etc. are going through economic hardships. Stop complaining like babies and work to improve your economy.

  8. jupa says:

    Malawi Government, cant we have our own “Bosasa Operations” to deal with illegal immigrants loitering around devil street, biwi, bwandilo, mchesi and all over. Please we need to be in control of our country & resources.

  9. paul says:

    We need to fix our economy here, so we dont lose educated people who can help malawi develop. But with low salaries and kwacha depreciation which has been too much in the past few years it will be difficult to keep them here as it is not possible to have a decent living when things are going up everyday. Let us fix the economy and have a strong kwacha for the future of our country

  10. Mnjonja says:

    Chuma chiri munthaka. Tiyeni tirime soya beans and mtedza abale? I learnt that Lab Processors, Estrell Trading CO., Afrinut, Exagris, Sunseed Oil and Agriculture Commodity Exchange are looking for about 200,000 metric Tonnes of soya Beans. Malawi only produced about 110,000 last year.

    The Ministry of Agriculture should create awareness to citizens and encourage them to grow these cash crops.

    The Government should also make use of the water from Lake Malawi for irrigation purposes as part of investment spending. This could be a big operation and could create Jobs

    The Government should establish a State Owned Enterprise and start commercial farming initiatives across the country. Open farms. There could be an abundance of crops produced that would enhance our GDP. These farms could also create employment. More than this, the taxes collected from this labour force would be higher to finance Government spending.

  11. Redeemed says:

    Furthermore, another Malawian man has been stuck in one of the gold mines with two women which I am not sure of their nationality for about three weeks now. Efforts to rescue them do not seem to be yielding any fruits, as it is feared that the situation is quite risky. The name of the miner is known to be Nyerenda and I am definite sure that he is a Malawian.
    My view is that, the government is dragging its feet in the rescue mission , probably because the victims are foreigners. At the moment it is unknown whether they are still alive or not and even though I do not know them, it really touches my heart that as the days go by, so are the chances of ever finding them alive.
    It’s really sad and disheartening.

  12. levelheaded says:

    Immigrating to other countries is more of a mental illness than economic hardships from the country one is from.

    Tanzania is economically sound than Zambia but you hardly find Zambians in foreign countries than Tanzanians.
    China is world’s second biggest economy but you find them almost everywhere.

  13. Jamu says:

    This is a true story, but not new. Malawians started flocking to RSA to find jobs a long time ago including graduates / professionals. It shows goverment’s failure to create jobs. If you go to Randburg on Sat and Sun you will find thousands of Malawians, majority from the north, mingling around. You even wonder whether there are any more people left in the villages.

  14. Chimuzanga Majoti says:

    South Africa is dumping their goods in African countries destroying their industries and thus livelihoods as most industries back at home here cannot compete with cheap and high quality goods from South Africa. No wonder President Mugabe of Zimbabwe was asking South Africa to at least industrialise neighbouring countries so that they at least create some jobs and stop their people flocking into South Africa. South Africa will do well importing raw materials produced from these countries so that we have a win-win situation. As it stands now the South Africans will have to accommodate our people.

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