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Imprisoned prisoners: the double tragedy of refugees in Zimbabwe

Every state has a right to defend its sovereignty and national integrity-yes. Every state also has a right to protect its borders from infiltrators who are a threat to its national security-yes. In so doing, it is hence not only necessary but also prudent for any state to have immigration laws that regulate the ability of citizens and non-citizens alike to leave and enter its territory. Indeed it is an international norm for states to have specific requirements about who can enter their territory and under what circumstances, hence the need for identity documents and the imposition of visas to allow legal entry to non-nationals. This scenario is the picture perfect setting, where migration is voluntary and initiated by design- properly planned by the individuals concerned. Indeed when the movement of persons from their nation of origin into another is voluntary, then the receiving state has a legitimate and justified expectation that the documentation of the traveler be up to date and in order. However, that expectation by the receiving state ceases to be legitimate, reasonable and justifiable when it comes to refugees -but not for the government of Zimbabwe.

Refugees are prisoners of their ill-fate, victims of their own statehood, targeted by their own people.

Immigration, including the presence of refugees in Zimbabwe is governed by the Immigration Act [Chapter 4:02], the Citizenship Act [Chapter 4:01:], the Immigration Regulations Statutory Instrument 195 of 1998 and other ad-hoc pieces of legislation. Section 8(1) of the Immigration Act permits the arrest of any person falling in the category of prohibited persons suspected to have illegally entered into Zimbabwe to be detained for not more than 14 days while enquiries into their identity are underway. Section 9 of that Act allows such persons to be detained in a prison or a police cell.

However, the Immigration Act makes a clear distinction between such prohibited persons and refugees. Refugees or individuals claiming to be refugees upon their arrival on Zimbabwean territory are not prohibited persons. They should therefore not be detained in prison. Instead they must be taken to holding facilities for refugees while their status is being determined. This has not been the case in practice as this provision has been either ignored or disregarded.

The first time I heard of the conduct of the Zimbabwean government towards refugees was in May 2011, when “The Zimbabwean”, an online newspaper reported the inhumane conditions under which close to 100 Somali refugees, driven from their homes by the protracted war in their country, were being detained by the Zimbabwean government at the Beitbridge border post near South Africa. Some of the refugees had contracted malaria, and at least one was confirmed dead by the Chief Police in Charge of Beitbridge border town, Hosiah Mukombero. The Refugees ended up receiving assistance from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) which has temporary holding facilities at Beitbridge border post. The refugees were clearly trying to cross the border to South Africa, which has better economic circumstances than Zimbabwe. Most refugees are reluctant to remain in Zimbabwe because they are restricted to Tongogara refugee camp, in Chipinge, Manicaland Province of Zimbabwe. This camp is far from many facilities, it marginalises the refugees and renders them wholly dependant on donor aid, denied a chance of restoring their dignity, the ability to work for themselves and become self sustaining.

In further reports in October 2011, IOM deplored the detention of 26 Somali and 74 Ethiopian asylum seekers at Harare remand prison while awaiting transfer to Tongogara refugee camp. “The Zimbabwean” reported that a senior refugee official in the Department of Social Welfare, Moira Gombingo had admitted to the torture of migrants including refugees by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) but justified it as routine security checks. She also mentioned that after being grilled by the CIO, they were then handed over to the security services of their countries of origin without being allowed access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This is a violation of UN rules on treatment of asylum seekers. Ordinarily, Ethiopians would not pose a security threat to Zimbabwe because of the geo-political divides between the two countries. Hence, the only plausible reason for such arduous security checks would be for the protection of the former Prime Minister Mengistu Haille Mariame who lives in Zimbabwe and is accorded protection by the Zimbabwean government.

Another report in January 2012 by “The Standard” revealed that immigration officials raided the premises of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMECZ) in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in order to detain and eventually deport the 26 Congolese (DRC) refugees sheltered in that church, half of whom were minors. Charity organisations were taking care of the refugees who had arrived in Zimbabwe from their war torn country. The officials wanted to send the minors to Mlondolozi prison and the adults to Khami maximum prison saying they were a threat to national security. The Methodist church eventually arranged with the UNHCR to have the refugees taken to Tongogara Refugee Camp.

These refugees were believed to be supporters of an opposition party to the incumbent head of state of the DRC, Joseph Kabila. Again one wonders whether their treatment could be linked to their opposition to Kabila, whose regime the government of Zimbabwe supports. Such support has included Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Great War of Africa which Zimbabwe joined in September 1998.

These stories form part of a systemic anti-refugee campaign by the government of Zimbabwe. Sources from the Zimbabwe Prison Services (ZPS), whose identity remains anonymous for security reasons, explained that three kinds of migrants are usually brought to the prisons for detention. The first group consists of illegal migrants who enter into the Zimbabwean borders without proper documentation and are therefore classified as prohibited persons in terms of the Immigration Act. The second category are refugees who would have escaped from Tongogara Refugee camp, are apprehended by the police and sent to prison to verify their identity and status before being returned to the camp. The third category, are mere refugees who would have crossed the border illegally-for obvious reasons and upon apprehension by the police are immediately sent to prison.

The sources explained that these migrants are sent to what they call ‘holding cells’ under similar conditions as prisoners awaiting trial. Thankfully, these migrants are rarely mixed with common prisoners. In Harare, men are sent to Harare Remand prison while women are sent to Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. Children are sent with their mothers and the women are identified as ‘mothers accompanying children.’ The sources indicated that children are rarely sent to homes or care of the social welfare services because government perceives that the period of their detention is too short to bother going through the process of separating them from their mothers and then reuniting them once the mothers' statuses are determined.

While in detention, the refugees have no access to legal assistance. The government structure responsible for legal aid, the Legal Aid Directorate is overburdened and inadequately resourced and they prioritise prisoners awaiting trial hence these refugees remain in prison until the government decides to release them. Although the provision of food in the prisons has significantly improved in terms of availability where three meals are provided in a day, for refugees, the food offered is unacceptable in terms of quality and content as the food, usually Zimbabwe's staple food sadza accompanied with green vegetables, is unfamiliar and comes in small quantities.

In terms of sanitation, the refugees are expected to clean their own cells. Each day, they are allowed to go outside for a few hours to get a bit of fresh air and then sent back into their holding cells. They may be given bath soap and washing soap to clean their blankets but because of the inadequacy of resources allocated to the ZPS itself, this may not be available to them.

Ordinarily, the detention of offenders under the Immigration Act should be for a maximum of 14 days. In addition to their being innocent prisoners, refugees often become forgotten in prison until the prison services reminds immigration to facilitate their release.

One wonders why refugees are detained in prison in the first place. The government of Zimbabwe does not have facilities to hold migrants while their status as refugees, economic migrants or such other status is being considered. In fact, ZPS has had to bear the extra burden of detaining migrants including refugees indefinitely, significantly stretching their detention capacity.

Zimbabwe should be guided by a comprehensive international legal framework for the detention of asylum seekers and refugees consisting of Article 31 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees on Non-Penalization, Detention, and Protection; the UNHCR's 1999 Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards relating to the Detention of Asylum-Seekers; the 2009 UNHCR Selected Documents Relating to Detention; as well as the 2011 UNHCR Guidelines on the Right to Liberty and Security of Person and 'Alternatives to Detention' of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, Stateless Persons and Other Migrants. Amnesty International in 2007 also produced a Guide on Migration-Related Detention setting out Human Rights Standards Relevant to the Detention of Migrants, Asylum-Seekers and Refugees which could guide the state on the minimum requirements for the conditions under which refugees and other migrants may be lawfully detained.

Some of the principles which Zimbabwe should follow include the humane treatment of refugees-refugees are vulnerable by the mere fact of their being homeless, forced to abandon their familiar territory and homes, further victimization through detention worsens their situation. They need protection and must not be victimised with arbitrary detention. Women, who may be nursing mothers, pregnant, victims of rape or such other torture, must be given medical and psychological health attention, which they will not be able to get in prison.

Refugees are forced to migrate and may not be in possession of identity documents hence it is critical for immigration officials to work from this perspective when dealing with refugees. An expectation by such officials for refugees to have proper identification would be as absurd as it is unreasonable and unjustified.

The status of refugees should be expedited and detention must be a last resort. Such detention must not be in prison but in temporary holding facilities with basic amenities. The detention period must be only long enough to conduct the security checks. During their period of detention, the refugees must have access to legal representation.

Admittedly, the mixed migratory patterns of individuals from the Horn and East of Africa to Southern Africa, where Zimbabwe is usually used as a temporary stop-over for economic migrants on their way to South Africa where they anticipate a better life, has made government wary and resentful of individuals claiming to be refugees. This has necessitated the restrictions the government places on access by refugees into Zimbabwean border entry points and when they enter illegally, strict detention to prevent them from fleeing to South Africa.

However there is need to stress that the strategy of the government of Zimbabwe of encampment of refugees also contributes to the challenges. Encampment significantly restricts refugees’ freedom of movement. They are like prisoners in a foreign land. Once these refugees are detained in the camps, they lose all opportunity at creating a better future for themselves. They can not work even if they were professionals in their country of origin and they lack real economic and educational prospects which would be available to them across the border in South Africa if they managed to get access. It is no wonder then that they escape the camp, or avoid being sent to the camp.

If only, they would be given a chance to integrate into society, create their own opportunities for livelihood, governed by the same laws as citizens then more of them would be eager to stay on in Zimbabwe and hopefully restore some sanity to their shattered lives.

*Attempts to get comments from UNHCR and the Department of Immigration were futile*

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.



ikirimat's picture

MaDube, your story about the

MaDube, your story about the treatment of prisoners/refugees is so in-depth and has enlightened me of situations I had not thought about. You are courageous to touch on such sensitive issues that very people would attempt. I hope this story brings to light (in the eyes of the authorities) what they need to improve while handling prisoners/refugees.

Keep your voice loud Gal.
Well done

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

MaDube's picture

Dear Ikirimat

Thank you so much my dear for your lovely comments.

I could not believe that this was how our government treats refugees. If they could assist the UNHCR with security and handover these people directly to UNHCR upon their arrival then there would be no need to send them to prison. It is simply appalling.



You never disappoint me Rumbie. As always your ideas are well articulated and clearly mapped out for anyone to understand the crux of the matter of any subject you broach.This topic is particularly close to my heart since I was both an internally displaced person in my own war torn country at one point during the brutal conflict and then spent a stint as a refugee in a neighboring nation before coming to the United States. It is rather disheartening to hear how people who are on their last footing and desperately seeking refuge from whatever traumatic situation in their country of origin can be faced with such psychological roller coasters, such as the one you paint a picture of in Zimbabwe, when all they need is respite. My prayer is that articles like this one shine a bright spotlight on issues such as the plight of refugees in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Thanks again for a well-written article. I am proud of you! Keep up the great work.


MaDube's picture

Dear Barbara

You got exactly what I was trying to convey. It is one thing for refugees to be traumatised by the events they are trying to escape from but to be treated in this fashion where they seek refuge is a lack of compassion on the part of my government. I needed to raise awareness on this issue because I think how Zimbabwean refugees are treated in other countries especially in South Africa has been the subject of many theses, discussions and articles. These particular human rights violations by the government of Zimbabwe against refugees is under-reported.

Thank you so much for your support and guidance.

Much love.

BlueSky's picture

Better Late than Never!

And that's the truth MaDube. Well done. The plight of refugees without all the difficulties you reveal, is already a very desperate one. They are hoping against hope; dreaming an impossible dream. And what a nightmare it becomes when caught up in such an inhumane system.

Thank you for bringing this issue into the light where it belongs, that those caught up in its darkness may hope once again.

Best to you dear sister,


MaDube's picture

My dear

I always observe very closely the way I am treated when I travel to a different country, especially a country where it is obvious that I am a foreigner by virtue of my skin colour. The looks by some and the sneers by other people when you can't speak the language , some people just don't pay you any attention. You get funny questions asked about where you are from and whether you have lions in your backyard. The experience is all so weird at first. But I am fortunate that wherever I go, I have food, water, accommodation, clothes, enough money and I have a home to go back to. So I imagine how the situation would be for someone who has non of the above-has no home to go to and can not call their country of origin home. Surely, they do not deserve anymore harsh treatment in their lives.

I hope with time, our governments in Africa especially will begin to be more open to receiving refugees and treateing them just like citizens.

Thanks for you comments BlueSky,



Chinemu's picture

Good piece

Good piece Sister, well written,

MaDube's picture

Thank you Chinemu. It was the

Thank you Chinemu. It was the hardest piece I have worked on on this training. I think it was a combination of the time limitations, the unwillingness of most of the people that would have given credible and accurate information to divulge that information and the sensitivity of the issue as well. But I am glad in the end it all worked out well.

Dear MaDube. What a truly exceptional piece on a deeply disturbing issue that you have illuminated. Your fact based yet emotionally compelling story of the inhumane conditions imposed on refugees who flee one country's oppression only to experience another country's oppression awakens the reader to shocking truths. Your writing has an investigative, comprehensive lens that magnifies the human toll of perpetuated trauma and injustice. As a reader, it was also very helpful to hear your solutions outlined in the most cogent and concrete manner --following the legal framework that exists to protect refugees and sustain their dignity, health and self-sufficiency rather than perpetuate dependency cycles and abuse. Congratulations on such a strong stance in what is a brave act of journalism. May your article serve as a vision of change of policies and minds in Zimbabwe. Warm regards, Ellen

MaDube's picture

Dear Ellen

Thank you so much for your comment. Wow. I had not realised that my article comes out strongly on the investigative element. I am glad though that you understood the background to the problem, the challenges that the refugees face and the possible things the government could do to change the fate of these refugees. Thank you so much for reading my piece and taking the time to comment as well.



Anne D.'s picture

Very thoroughly reported


Amazing detail. Very thoroughly reported. Thank you for giving a voice to the refugees. You also lay out the challenges the government faces and clear steps that it should be taking to address this vulnerable population and their needs. It's a very informative piece.


MaDube's picture

Dear Anne

This piece was difficult to put together but also gave me a great learning experience. I had to put aside my prejudices and work with the facts and reality on the ground. One of those realities was that my government has serious resource constraints and that affects their delivery of services to all the people on their territory, citizens and non citizens alike. But then again I had to pick out those things that do not really need resources but just political will that the government could do to ensure that refugees are treated in a human manner.

So, thank you for reading and commenting on my piece.



usha kc's picture

Rumbie, I feel your golden

I feel your golden heart crying for them--Refugee-- loved it dear.
I give you my voice to support you sista.
thank you for sharing such touching article once again.


MaDube's picture

Thank you Usha for your

Thank you Usha for your comments. It is an issue dear to me and so I tried my level best not to bring my prejudices into it.
I had to keep a level head and report, fairly, accurately and impartially. It was hard to do as I love expressing my opinion.



noreens's picture

This is a well-written

This is a well-written article packed with information. Good Job, MaDube!

(we both wrote about refugees but our stories are VERY different!)


MaDube's picture

Thank you Noreens. I am yet

Thank you Noreens. I am yet to read your story and I will be sure to do that.



Celine's picture

Dear Rumbie, Thank you for

Dear Rumbie,

Thank you for this educative piece on the status of refugees and the existence of the Immigration Act in Zimbabwe. I enjoy reading your piece.


MaDube's picture

Thank you for your comment

Thank you for your comment Sis Celine. I just felt that a lot has been said about the treatment of Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa and Botswana but not much on how we in Zimbabwe treat refugees on our territory. It was hard getting the necessary information because the topic is sensitive and doors were closed. But thank you.

Stella Paul's picture

Someone doesn't like you :)

Twice I tried commenting and twice I failed coz of the internet broke down. Hmm..someone in the IT network doesn't like all these writings about refugees. Don't blame him though. It would take a lot to swallow such strong, hard-hitting worded piece! Honestly speaking, I felt I was reading yet another Oped from you and I actually liked it! Not everyone is gifted with opinions, specially of the fair and wise kind, but you are. So keep them coming!

Coming from India - a country unbearably burdened with refugee influx that deeply cut into its resources, I know the pain of a state to deal with refugees. Its this pain that gives birth to neglect unwillingness to be fair. But that's a challenge the state has to come up through fair diplomatic means. It can work harder for expatriation of the refugees, but should not ignore the refugee's right to humane treatment as long as they are here. Once again, well written! Will miss these monthly assignments - something I have gotten used to :( Love

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

MaDube's picture


Oh they sure don't. Remember last week I wrote something on rape on my wall and it disappeared into thin air.

I am not surprised you think my feature story sounds like an op-ed, I was pretty confused myself about what I was doing when it all came to the end. Really, I had a tough time writing this one and I have never been happier to have something out of my way (grinning). Now I have to contend with the confusion of whether or not I choose to do a photo-slide show or a video but the ideas are becoming more concrete each day.

Thanks for the comments dear and true, the resources do pose a serious problem. They ask, if our resources are strained and we can not provide for our own citizens how much more so should we be expected to provide for foreigners. But the idea is with the limited resources, treat them like human beings, they are not common criminals so why throw them in prison?


mrbeckbeck's picture


This was an excellent piece of journalism, Rumbie! I'm really impressed at how you were able to tell such a complex story in such a short space. You handled the statistics and facts well, and confronted a crazy system in your backyard. I applaud your brave work on this.

Congratulations on all four of your excellent writing assignments!

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Volunteer

MaDube's picture

Hey Scott

Wow, thank you. It was a complex story indeed, not to speak about the extreme difficulties I encountered trying to get as accurate information as possible from the relevant sources. I'm just glad it all worked out in the end.

And thank you for your tremendous support throughout these past four months as I worked on the four writing assignments.

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture


Congratulations on a truly impactful feature story. Great work!

Kind regards,


"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

MaDube's picture

Thank you Rachael.

Thank you Rachael.

irene madara's picture


MaDube i am so impressed with your work...i love reading your pieces they are always well executed i mean this is brilliant.I must say you inspire me honestly.How you do it,i must find
Good work once again keep informing us and educating us....never stop writing

MaDube's picture

Thank you Irene. The secret

Thank you Irene. The secret to writing is to write about the things you love and the issues you relate to-the clarity, the tone, the facts, the words all come together.

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