Human traffickers exploit Zim’s laws, turn RGM International Airport into transit route

According to the Immigration Act, nationals of most countries are permitted to pass through Zimbabwe without a transit visa as long as they remain within any of the country’s international airports and do not stay there for more than six hours on the same calendar day.

Human trafficking and smuggling syndicates have devised ways to duck local immigration regulations at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport amid indications has become a transit route for illegal trafficking of Ethiopians and Pakistan nationals’ en-route to South Africa.

A 2022 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Walk Free, and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that in 2021, 27,6 million people around the world were living in modern slavery.

Data from cases that IOM assisted over the last 10 years show that nearly 80% of international human trafficking journeys cross through official border control points, including airports.

Preliminary investigations carried by Alpha Media Holding’s investigative journalism unit, Truth Diggers, show improvements in enforcement processes at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport have led trafficking networks to seek new sieves and have found loopholes in the country’s immigration laws.

According to the Immigration Act, nationals of most countries are permitted to pass through Zimbabwe without a transit visa as long as they remain within any of the country’s international airports and do not stay there for more than six hours on the same calendar day.

However, Pakistani and Bangladeshi passport holders are required to have a Zimbabwe transit visa no matter the intended transit time.

Sources at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport said while OR Tambo and Cape Town airports in South Africa are traditional hubs of human trafficking and smuggling, the Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe airport has become a favourite transit route for the traffickers.

They indicated that Eswatini Air was the airline of choice for traffickers in transit to South Africa via Eswatini.

Ethiopians in particular are said to be taking advantage of Zimbabwe’s Immigration Act that does not require them to get transit visas to use the RGM airport enroute to Eswatini.

They allegedly avoid flying directly to Eswatini to circumvent smuggling rings that work with corrupt airline employees that provide them with flight manifests, which they use to identify people trafficked by rival groups, whom they turnover to the authorities.

From Eswatini, the immigrants cross over into South Africa using land borders.

“Zimbabwe is being used as a transit port by Ethiopians going into Swaziland using Eswatini Air,” said a source at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Local immigration officers say they cannot deny them entry because they will be transiting to Eswatini.

"Normally, the numbers of those in transit range from 10 to 15 per day and they come mostly aboard Ethiopian Airlines."

Passengers that are in transit in Harare are not subjected to screening

The source said it was now difficult to enter Zimbabwe directly and human traffickers were now using transit routes since the country’s immigration laws don’t require transit visas.

“We managed to stop it because traditionally they used to come via Zimbabwe then South Africa, but after that expose` in (The Standard) in May last year, they devised new ways of transiting via Harare taking advantage of loopholes in the Immigration Act, which doesn’t require transit visas,” he said.

Sources said the Addis Ababa to Johannesburg route was traditionally the most preferred by traffickers, but Harare has been added to the list.

This investigation established that trafficking networks work with employees of different airlines.

“It’s a syndicate,” said another source.

“When these immigrants leave their countries of origin they are told by their ‘agents’ to carry at least US$1 200 to facilitate their move to South Africa.

“It’s either they are helped to board planes to South Africa or Eswatini.”

Several immigrants on transit pass through Robert Mugabe International Airport on a daily basis, sources said.

“It’s big business,” the source said.

Eswatini Air, which is operated by the Royal Eswatini National Airways Corporation (RENAC), introduced Harare flights in April last year.

The airline flies to Zimbabwe four times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

RENAC marketing and communications manager Batsabile Loveness Nkambule distanced Eswatini Air from the human trafficking allegations.

“The airline is not aware of such cases as none have been reported so far,” Nkambule responded via e-mail.

“As an airline, our role is to check the relevant documents necessary for our passengers to board our flights and these include passports and visas where applicable.

“We have good relations with the airports of all destinations we operate to, and we work very closely with the immigration departments of all countries we fly to, especially those based at the airports.

“The final decision to board an aircraft lies with the immigrations offices of both the country of origin and arrival.”

At the 2018 International Air Transport Association annual general meeting, airlines reaffirmed their commitment to several actions to help counter human trafficking including sharing of best practices and staff training.

“We are willing to cooperate with the relevant authorities in investigating this matter if need be,” Nkambule said.

This investigation revealed that facilitation of passage for immigrants is done before hand from the time the human trafficking victims leave Addis Ababa Bole.

According to the Global Initiative against Transitional Organised Crime, Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa Bole International Airport is emerging as a new continental hotspot for the illegal trafficking of narcotics, wildlife and lately human beings. 

“It’s a cartel that is coordinated from Ethiopia, Eswatini to South Africa,” said a source.

“The traffickers fly frequently between Harare and Addis Ababa — a distance of 3 108km — where they are now on first name basis with airlines staff.

“Only Ethiopian Airlines serves the Harare — Addis Ababa route directly.”

Flights from the east African country to Harare operate five times a week, with an average of one flight per day.

Addis Ababa Bole International Airport is the major hub for Ethiopian Airlines.

“The earliest flight from Ethiopia arrives at RGM International Airport at 1:35pm while the last flight touches down at 2:10am and this is when a lot happens,” said the source.

Anti-human trafficking activist Gerald Shirichena believes traffickers are not taking advantage of the immigration laws, but loopholes within the aviation systems.

“The Immigration Act is watertight, I’m not a lawyer and I don't claim to be one, but my little knowledge tells me that the Immigration Act is watertight,” said Shirichena, who is also founder and director of Vukarhani Trust, a local anti-trafficking organisation.

“Some people choose to make a law look like it has so many loopholes so that they move people through the airports.

“This is what traffickers do. Traffickers, when they look for a place where they see there is that laissez-faire kind of thing, people look for the other side.

“People are not conscious of what is happening.

“They will take advantage of that. And remember human trafficking syndicates seem to be loosely connected, but those connections are very watertight.

“They know each other, they know places and they refer each other to people.

“So you would find out the syndicate is starting right in Ethiopia, right in Somalia.

“Our airport is just a way they will just pass through.”

Shirichena said human traffickers look for easy routes for them to move their people.

“As much as we know what are now called the slave trade routes, we are going to discover more modern day slavery routes and these routes include passing through the RG Mugabe International Airport because Zimbabwe, as you are aware, is a transit, a source and a destination of human trafficking,” he said.

“Zimbabwe has porous borders, all-inclusive of airports and land borders. The reason why these borders are porous is basically corruption and bribery, which are at the root of all this.”

An official in the Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare ministry, which oversees the social protection for the vulnerable groups of society including refugees, told Truth Diggers that enhancement in enforcement processes on land routes have compelled trafficking networks to shift their focus to air routes.

“We used to have lots of these people getting into the country via Nyamapanda border post by road en-route to South Africa,” said the official.

“However, the traffickers have resorted to using air routes due to tight immigration processes at the borders.

“If you would realise we used to accommodate some of these immigrants at our camp in Waterfalls, but now all refugees are at Tongogara Refugee Camp in Chipinge.”

Truth Diggers visited the camp along Cheviot Road in Waterfalls in Harare and were barred from entering the premises..

Residents in the area said the asylum seekers, mainly the Somalis and Ethiopians were last seen at the camp more than 10 years ago.

“They are no longer there, but there a few refugees from DRC who are housed in the camp,” said a vendor at Cheviot shopping centre.

Chairperson of the parliamentary committee on defence, home affairs, veterans of liberation struggle and security services, Albert Nguluvhe said they will move to align immigration laws with the constitution when need be.

“The committee on its work plan intends to visit entry and departure ports inclusive of airports,” Nguluvhe said.

“I would appreciate a lot if you can assist the committee in identifying those lapses in the Act, which need to be improved so that this issue is addressed. 

“Where our laws are not in line with our constitution those will be amended and in terms of international best practices and protocol they should conform to our constitution.”

Nguluvhe said the committee will only recommend policy changes after they would have visited airports and entry points.

“We need to be factual in our recommendations, but it would be helpful if you assist the committee with the information before they visit the sites,” he said.

According to the US Department of State's 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report; the government of Zimbabwe does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so.

“The government increased criminal investigations of officials complicit in trafficking crimes; however, corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns,” reads part of the report.

“The government charged a Zimbabwe Republic Police officer with human trafficking for complicity in recruiting Zimbabwean women for exploitation in domestic servitude in Oman and charged a high-ranking political official with visa fraud related to alleged human trafficking crimes; both investigations remained ongoing.”

The report said the government did not have a system to investigate and prosecute complicit officials.

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