“Migrant mothers need our help,” say South Africa’s baby smugglers

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Amos Xulu drives the 857-kilometre, 20-hour journey between Johannesburg in South Africa and Bulawayo in Zimbabwe several times a week. Today, as he swerves his Scania bus into the middle lane, he has one hand on the steering wheel; with his other hand, he feeds an infant child porridge.

The baby is not his. Amos is a ‘road nanny’. He considers himself an enterprising bus driver, one who supplements his income by charging desperate migrant mothers to smuggle their South African-born children back ‘home’ to Zimbabwe. But to anti-trafficking campaigners, he is a criminal.

Given both the large number of undocumented migrants in South Africa and the close proximity between Zimbabwe’s biggest cities and South Africa’s commercial capital, Johannesburg, the cross-border smuggling of unaccompanied migrant children (UMC) is mainly limited to Zimbabweans, who number anywhere between one and three million in South Africa.

Inaccurate data, porous borders and Zimbabwe’s troubled economy means that "the number of children smuggled between the two countries borders is impossible to estimate," according to Noah Mhlanga a media officer at the South African office of the International Organization of Migration.

But it’s on the up. This summer controversial new immigration regulations were introduced to prevent the trafficking of children.

As a result, all parents travelling to and through South Africa must produce an ‘unabridged’ birth certificate, while lone parents must produce signed permission from the non-travelling parent, along with a copy of their ID card or passport. These strict requirements are impossible for many foreign parents to meet, driving them to look for alternative, illicit means of cross-border travel.

Gilles Virgili heads Children on The Move, a Save the Children South Africa project on the protection of UMCs in southern Africa. He tells Equal Times: “There are over 400,000 foreign children living in South Africa. It is estimated that 30 per cent of all migrants in Africa are children. This is the largest proportion in the world”.

Most of the mothers of these children can’t look after them in South Africa. Being born in South Africa is only a guarantee of citizenship for those children whose parents have permanent residency, and that number is a tiny percentage of the total number of foreigners in South Africa.

According to the latest data, only 6,801 permanent resident permits were issued in 2013 – 28.5 per of which were issued to Zimbabwean nationals.

The women who use Amos’s services, therefore, are precarious migrants – undocumented, mostly single mothers working for low wages as domestic workers, in factories, in catering or on farms. They cannot afford childcare, nor can they afford to take time off work to accompany their children back to family members in their home country. As a result, these bus drivers are their only option.


“Babies are not fruit baskets”

South Africa is a signatory to the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children and this August, it also introduced a new Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act. If caught, Amos faces a minimum of five years in prison, as well as having his passport and drivers license confiscated. But he insists there is nothing nefarious about his work.

“There’s a need for what I do. The babies arrive alive, mothers trust me and I get paid".

Mhlanga, however, describes the practice as “immoral on all levels. Babies are not fruit baskets to be carried over borders without parents.”

Amos says he “posts” more than 60 babies every year, aged four months and older, at the cost of approximately R3600 (US$300) per child. Other drivers charge anything between R2700 (approximately US$200) and R5500 (US$400).

Of course, bus companies prohibit the practice but when a driver stands to make his month’s salary in a single trip, the temptation is too much.

Mothers provide an onward address, the details of the person collecting the baby and a package of milk, nappies, bottled water and food before surrendering their children to the likes of Amos. On arrival in Zimbabwe, drivers verify the receiver’s ID or passport number before handing over the child.

For 24-year-old first-time mother Winnie Jokwe, entrusting the care of her baby to a complete stranger was a scary prospect, but says she had no choice but to pay a driver to take her six-month-old son back to her mother in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, last November. He arrived safely.

"I’m a laundry girl at a factory here in Johannesburg," she tells Equal Times. "I don’t have proper papers. When I fell pregnant my bosses slashed my wages in half and threatened to dismiss me from my job if I took maternity leave".

Winnie says there is no work back home in Zimbabwe and she cannot afford to lose her job in South Africa. “I earn R840 (approximately US$70) a week. I can’t afford the R2400 (US$200) to hire child help".

Themba Gwaza, a social outreach coordinator at the Zimbabwe Refugees Relief Consortium, says these migrant workers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“Cruel bosses in South Africa exploit the destitution of young mothers without immigration documents. They punish them for falling pregnant or seeking maternity breaks; they know the law doesn’t favour irregular working immigrants".

Mhlanga agrees. “The most effective method to stop this practice is enacting laws that stop employers from dismissing or harassing pregnant immigrant mothers with impunity.”


Grim situation

Glenda Soko, 22, works in a café. She has been texting a bus driver on the popular social media platform, WhatsApp. He is promising to take her daughter to her grandmother in Zimbabwe.

“My employer slapped me for falling pregnant. If I stop work to breastfeed, I’ll lose my job. Even if I keep my job and my baby grows up here, she faces deportation. She can’t attend school here.”

Glenda understands the risks: road traffic accidents, sickness during the journey and very occasionally, babies are handed over to social services or charity shelters if the driver is busted by police. No murders have yet been recorded.

For Kenneth Qobi, another bus driver who ferries babies between South Africa and Zimbabwe, the wellbeing of the children is very important. "For the duration of the journey, we embrace the babies of strangers as our own,” he tells Equal Times. “When they cry, we play with them until they fall sleep".

The drivers carry a maximum of two babies per journey. The other passengers, most of whom are also undocumented migrants, tend not to interfere with the practice.

Virgili says that corruption is the reason why baby smuggling continues to flourish. “A lot of older children we work with indicate that they cross borders irregularly by bribing officials.”

At tollgates and police roadblocks, says Kenneth, the bus drivers don’t even bother to hide the cries of their human cargo. They simply pay bribes of up to R50 (US$3.60) and continue with their journey.

When contacted by Equal Times for comment, the South African Police Service refused to comment.


Safe arrival

The buses stops for a toilet break at a café along the South Africa-Zimbabwe border. Older passengers disembark to use the bathroom facilities, but drivers like Kenneth and Amos stay onboard, administering pills for diabetic babies, drinks for thirsty ones and clinky toys for those crying from fatigue.

“We get so many phone calls from worried mums and grandmothers along the journey,” says Kenneth. “But I get it; their baby is everything.”

After 20 hours on the road, Amos’s bus makes its way into Bulawayo’s central bus terminal.

Vendors and touts of all kinds mingle below the bus windows. As passengers disembark, collect their bags and meet happy friends and relatives, for this is a testing time.

Anxious grandmothers and family members meet their small relatives, usually for the first time. The bus drivers carefully study identity documents to make sure they hand over the right baby to the right person. Meanwhile, relatives sign makeshift affidavits as proof of the baby’s safe arrival.

Civil society is working hard to stop the migration of unaccompanied children. “We work with bus and truck operators to prevent unsafe migration. It’s hard to monitor but we also do capacity-building training with immigration and border officials,” says Virgili.

Neo Goche, president of the Zimbabwe International Bus Operators Safety Association, says his members are penalised and rogue drivers are fired if they are caught “posting” babies. "It’s a stain on our trade."

But as Amos writes down name tags for some of the babies he will be carrying in the coming lucrative Christmas period, he sums up his work as thus: “Smugglers? No, we are not smugglers. We just help helpless mothers."