Border officials in South Africa say they have intercepted dozens of buses carrying more than 400 young children from Zimbabwe without parents or legal guardians in an anti-trafficking operation.
The officials say the children were being “trafficked” into South Africa, although an organization representing foreign nationals living in South Africa says it’s likely the children were being sent to visit their parents, who are working in South Africa, for the end of year holidays. The buses were sent back to Zimbabwe.
More than 1 million Zimbabweans live in South Africa, many of them illegally, having moved to their southern neighbour over the past 15 years to escape Zimbabwe’s economic turmoil.
South African Border Management Agency commissioner Mike Masiapato said Sunday that South African police stopped and searched 42 buses entering from Zimbabwe on Saturday night and found 443 children under the age of 8 travelling unaccompanied.
“We denied them entry and activated the Zimbabwean officials to process them back into Zimbabwe,” Masiapato said.
The buses were allowed through on the Zimbabwean side of the Beitbridge border post, South African border officials said.
Ngqabutho Mabhena, chairperson of the Africa Diaspora Forum, which represents foreign nationals living in South Africa, said his organization believed the buses were carrying Zimbabwean children coming to South Africa to visit their parents, which is a regular phenomenon near the end of the year.
He said it is common that children are sent over the border without proper documentation allowing them to travel as unaccompanied minors.
“We always tell Zimbabwean parents living in South Africa that if they arrange for their children to come to South Africa, they must … arrange all necessary documentation,” Mabhena said. “It is irresponsible for parents to let children travel without passports and to travel with strangers. We have addressed this with parents.”
Around 178,000 Zimbabweans live and work in South Africa legally under an exemption permit, but a 2022 South African census said there were more than a million Zimbabweans in the country. Some estimates say there may be as many as 3 million.
South Africa, which is Africa’s most advanced economy, launched a new border force in October to clamp down on illegal immigration from Zimbabwe and other countries.