SA Border Management Authority joint sting operation intercepts buses at Beitbridge carrying 443 children
A joint sting operation by the guards of the new Border Management Authority, the Home Affairs anti-corruption unit and the South African Police Services on Saturday night stopped the suspected trafficking of 443 very young children, all aged under eight, into South Africa. Some experts say that authorities might have interrupted a ‘smuggling’ operation where Zimbabwean parents pay to have their children brought to South Africa for the festive season.
A joint intelligence-driven operation from South Africa’s newly established Border Management Authority (BMA) on Saturday night stopped the transport of 443 very young children, the oldest being eight years, in what authorities described as a human trafficking incident.
BMA commissioner Dr Michael Masiapato said the 44 buses conveying the children were halted at the North Gate of the Beitbridge Border Post with Zimbabwe before the buses entered South Africa.
He said the bus drivers told them the children were going to play sport, but other information they received was that the children were sent by their Zimbabwean grandparents to their parents in South Africa.
Experts in the field said last night that there was an existing practice where parents paid drivers to bring their children to South Africa for the festive season, but that this was more a case of “smuggling” than trafficking.
Masiapato said the BMA was highly intelligence driven and “data” about the buses was received by their operatives. “We didn’t share the information, we just went in. We didn’t want anything to be leaked,” he said.
“When the buses came to the border post at North Gate, before they enter South Africa our officials went in. They boarded the buses and then they found all these children. Small children. The oldest was eight.”
He said the children had passports, but there were no adults with them, apart from the drivers, and they were travelling without parents, guardians and permission letters as regulations require.
As the children had documents, it was difficult to charge the bus drivers with a crime, he said.
Masiapato said the buses were inspected and officials found 443 children.
“The oldest was eight. We are talking about very small children,” he said. He said social workers had been called in from the Zimbabwe side to assist the children.
“The children were being trafficked,” Masiapato said. He said the children were handed back to Zimbabwean authorities.
He said they were able to take the children from the buses and engage with Zimbabwean officials.
“We do employ very serious intelligence-based models,” he said. “That is why we will be able to continue the interception of this kind of reality … it is rife,” he added.
“We will continue to do our best to try and bring some sanity into the border environment.”
“Our colleagues have been hard at work until this morning. We had interactions with them until 3am this morning. They were having a very serious conversation with the Zimbabwean officials in addressing the issue.
“The first thing we have to do is identify the children and make sure that we can get them back to their parents. If they are Zimbabwean, the Zimbabwean government will assist us to do so. If they are from any other part of the continent, Malawi, the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] or wherever, we should be able to facilitate that process.
“The key question is what are the other measures we put in place to deal with this kind of reality?” Masiapato said.
He said it was clear that there was a lapse in border control and that was why people “were doing criminality with impunity … We are starting to demonstrate that we are doing things differently,” he said.
An expert in the field of trafficking, who didn’t want to be named, said: “It is quite possible that this is a case of human smuggling and not human trafficking. There is a practice where parents pay for their children to be brought over the border so the family can be together over the festive season. Trafficking would be more if the children were going to be used for slave labour.”
Masiapato added that the BMA had also “intercepted” 67 Pakistani nationals, who arrived at OR Tambo International Airport “under the guise of being tourists”, in August. He said after interviews it became clear that the group was coming to stay in South Africa, “illegally for that matter”.
On 3 December, the BMA held a briefing on contingency measures for the festive season.
In its 2023 Human Trafficking Report, the United States Department of State highlighted that the government of Zimbabwe “did not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so”.
“The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Zimbabwe was upgraded to Tier 2. These efforts included investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases, including cases of official complicity. The government identified trafficking victims for the first time in two years and referred trafficking victims to services,” the report said.
“Military officers patrolling the Beitbridge border post and the Robert Mugabe International Airport received bribes to facilitate unauthorised entry from organised criminal groups likely transporting human trafficking victims. Officials accepted bribes to not inspect farms and businesses using exploitative labour practices. Violent gangs utilised forced labour in some artisanal and defunct gold mines, operating with impunity due to their connections to police and local politicians who allegedly accepted bribes and allowed workers to enter the mines without oversight. In some cases, trafficking victims reported law enforcement threatened and intimidated them when they tried to report their cases,” the report said.
South Africa established the BMA in April. Masiapato said this festive season was the BMA’s second big operation after Easter this year. He added that the operating hours for ports of entry would be extended until midnight to facilitate high volumes of traffic.
Masiapato said that, since April, the BMA had prevented more than 44,461 undocumented individuals from entering South Africa illegally. Another 98,150 people were refused entry and 100,452 were deported after overstaying their visas.
He added that 279 high-value vehicles were recovered in the past seven months, and 396 blasting cartridges, for use in cash-in-transit robberies, were confiscated at the country’s borders.
The BMA also seized 19 cellphone tower batteries and solar panels on the Mozambique border at Kosi Bay, and 641kg of dagga at the Lesotho and Eswatini borders. He said 9.1kg of Rohypnol, the date rape drug, was seized at OR international Tambo Airport, where it arrived hidden in dried fish. DM