Ressano Garcia — The eight teenagers walking towards the bright-green house, called Casa da Acolhida, look like any other group of young people. But they’re not.
Carrying their possessions in torn plastic bags, they are making their way from a police station 200m away. They had been interrogated there after being caught trying to cross the border into South Africa unaccompanied by an adult and without the necessary documentation.
The town of Ressano Garcia houses the Lebombo border post, the country’s busiest.
A sign at the border post informs anyone willing to read it that unaccompanied minors must be in possession of an unabridged birth certificate, a valid passport and a court order, death certificate or affidavit confirming their parents’ permission for them to travel. But for those who do not have this documentation and are desperate for better lives in South Africa, the only option left for them is an illegal one. And there are many like these eight children.
A policeman the Mail & Guardian spoke to said that “between one and five a week” were caught. “But there are no official statistics,” he added.
A 2017 report published by the International Organisation for Migration found that “data on children in migration has been particularly limited”.
“Despite many years’ worth of study and analysis of the issue of unaccompanied migrant children in the world in general, and in Southern Africa in particular … the exercise of estimating the numbers of irregular migrants is difficult, and remains work in progress at best. When such an exercise is distilled down to [unaccompanied children] it rarely includes disaggregated data and often the methods used are also much debated. Part of the challenge emanates from the very nature of the target population that is hidden and mostly wants to remain as such.”
Casa da Acolhida — loosely translated it means “The Welcome House” — was established to receive unaccompanied minors who had been apprehended once they are back on Mozambican soil and released by the police. Here they are fed, their names recorded and transport to their homes is paid for.
Some of the people at the house agree to speak to the M&G but now they are hungry. “Comida e mais importante [food is the most important thing],” says 17-year-old Tomas Abdala*, adding that he had not eaten since very early the previous day.
The plate of arroz e feijão (rice and black beans) he wolfs down might have sated his hunger but it can’t rid him of his disappointment. “I feel like a fool … a fool. Because I didn’t complete my mission,” he says.
His mission was to find employment in South Africa. “Any kind of job I could find. The only thing I want is a job,” he says.
An orphaned farm worker, Tomas left his home in Gaza province’s Chokwe district and arrived two days later in Ressano Garcia. Once there, he jumped the fence “about 200 metres” from the Lebombo border post.
“We paid people to help us get from this side to South Africa. There are people there whose job it is to help people jump across the fence,” he says.
After paying R150 to his facilitators, he was on South African soil. But not for long.
“I only walked for a little bit, then I was caught,” he says. “When they caught me, they spoke in Zulu, saying, ‘You will be transferred to the prison or you can pay to be released,” he says.
But the R800 bribe his captors demanded in exchange for his freedom was too steep.
“Other people who were also caught had this money and they were released immediately. But I didn’t have this money. So me and the other people who didn’t have this money were arrested. We had to come back to Mozambique,” he says.
The 2017 report noted: “The number of child migrants to South Africa is virtually impossible to gauge, owing to factors such as minimal border control, high levels of corruption at border posts, the prevalence of smuggling practices and the absence of a registration mechanism for irregular migrants.”
In July this year, Amabélia Chuquela, Mozambique’s deputy attorney general, spoke to the online publication Jornal Noticias. Commenting on corruption at border posts, Chuquela said: “There have been cases of facilitation of exit or entry of unaccompanied minors to neighbouring countries, as is the case in South Africa.”
At the Lebombo border post, teenagers join adults in plying their humble trade. Wiping sweat from their brows, they sullenly sell fruit, soft drinks and castanha (cashew nuts).
Miguel Faustino* could have been one of them but he chose another route, one he thought would be more lucrative. With nobody other than his unemployed father to rely on, the 18-year-old says he came to the border-post town to earn money to continue his education.
From Fridays to Sundays, he would be stopped by motorists not wanting to declare all their goods to customs officials. Faustino and his friends would then carry these goods across the border into South Africa, where they would be rewarded with “R10 or R15” for their efforts. Slight of frame, Faustino says the weight of the goods varied but were “on average about 15kg each”.
Faustino says he had made many such trips that weekend and, by Sunday, had pocketed R150. But when he was caught, he had little choice but to hand over his earnings to a policeman who demanded a bribe in exchange for his release.
He says the R20 he kept safely tucked away will be enough to get him back home.
“I’m very happy to go home. I want to go back to school,” he says.
Tomas does not have this option. He left school when he was just eight years old. “There was nobody to support my education,” he says, clenching his jaws and staring into the distance.
“All I want is to live here in Mozambique — maybe Maputo —and have a job. I just want a job. My dream is to live here, working and building my family,” he says.
Picking up his tattered rucksack with an almost defiant determination, Tomas heads off, wearing the laceless and faded running shoes he wore the day he set out for South Africa. As he walk-runs past the police station in the direction of the border town’s bustling main road, he looks like any other kid. But Tomas, like the others released back on to their home soil that day, is not like others. He is one who, despite his best efforts, was walking away from a border — away from his “mission” —disappointed and feeling “like a fool”.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian.