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Zambia beefs up its borders to tackle illegal migration

March 9, 2023

Zambia has become a major transit point for human traffickers who often smuggle people into the country en route to South Africa. The government said tighter borders would be key in dealing with the crisis.

Zambian police officers
Zambia is considering sending law enforcement to patrol the borders for the first timeImage: Peng Lijun/Xinhua/imago images

Zambia is tightening its border controls and plans to, for the first time, employ border guards as the government grapples with rising instances of illegal migration into the country.

The southern African country has been fighting human smuggling for years. Zambia has taken in more than 105,000 refugees from neighboring nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Angola and Rwanda, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Additionally, irregular migration along the route from the Horn of Africa to southern Africa — which traverses Zambia — is often facilitated by an intricate network of people smugglers and human traffickers who put the lives of migrants in danger, according to the (International Organization for Migration).

The traffickers take advantage of Zambia's porous borders and have turned the country into a transit zone for migrants en route to South Africa, the continent's second-biggest economy. 

In December, the bodies of 27 people, believed to be migrants from Ethiopia, were discovered north of Zambia's capital, Lusaka. 

Investigations indicate that the bodies "all males aged between 20 and 38, were dumped ... in Ngwerere area by unknown people,'' police spokesperson Danny Mwale said in a statement.

Two years ago, 64 Ethiopian men were also found dead in a sealed shipping container in Mozambique, which borders Zambia's east. 

Strengthening borders

Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema has voiced his concern about the human trafficking.

"Government has continued to intercept illegal migrants, who, with the assistance of some of our own citizens, have continued to enter. Some stay in the country; others move on to other countries," he said. "We have also noted, with dismay, that some of our people, are harboring illegal immigrants."

"To prevent these vices, government has passed the Anti-Human-Trafficking Amendment Act. We are also strengthening our border controls and, for the first time in the history of our country, we are employing border guards," Hichilema said. 

Zambia's immigration department is already moving fast to implement the new law.

Namati Nshinka, a department spokesperson, told DW that the borders can be made less porous with border guards.

"Having border guards is the best practice in migration governance, worldwide," Nshinka said. "For Zambia, with the borderline measuring 5,600 kilometers (3,500 miles) border guards are critical in ensuring that there is no illegal crossing of our borders."

Before Zambia launched its first-ever migration policy in December, the country had several sector-specific coordination mechanisms.

These were "aimed at addressing migration issues; there was, however, no overarching coordination framework, bringing together the different sectoral interventions," Nshinka said. "The migration policy introduced a coordinated form of government approach to effective migration management."

Fact check: Myths human traffickers tell refugees and migrants

Arresting migrants

About 100 undocumented migrants were recently arrested for various offenses in Zambia.

"In fact, some law enforcement officers are among those that have been arrested for abating some of these incidences, and I wish to take this opportunity to warn that the government will make sure that all those that are involved in illegal human trafficking are held accountable," Mwiimbu said in the country's Central Province.

But rights activist Josphat Njobvu told DW that the effective handling of the migration crisis could have far reaching impacts on other forms of abuses taking place.

"It's a human rights concern, of course, when you are talking about human trafficking, smuggling of young girls, sexual abuse and other forms of abuse that is happening," Njobvu said.

He has called for a robust strategy to deal with what he considers a major crisis.

"So we hope, that, as a country and of course other countries, we can work together and strengthen policies, strengthen the laws, that are supposed to curb trafficking," he said.

New law receives backing

Some foreign nationals based in Zambia have told DW they hope Zambia's newly announced migration strategies succeed.

Jean Ndayisenga — a former refugee who arrived in Zambia from Rwanda over two decades ago — said Zambia must be drastic in its approach to the crisis.

"Zambia, has some friendly laws for asylum-seekers," he said. "Somebody can apply for asylum from the border." With that in mind, he said, border guards could help slow human trafficking. "It is the right move," he said.

Edited by: Keith Walker

Glory Mushinge, DW correspondent in Lusaka, Zambia
Glory Mushinge Glory Mushinge is a Zambian multi-award- winning journalist and DW reporter in Lusaka.@gmwisa