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SA Border Management Authority joint sting operation intercepts buses at Beitbridge carrying 443 children

SA Border Management Authority joint sting operation intercepts buses at Beitbridge carrying 443 children
Illustrative image: (Photos: GCIS | Amnesty International | Rawpixel)

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.

The Commissioner of the Border Management Authority, Michael Masiapato, and border law enforcement brief members of the media, 3 December 2023. (Photo: GCIS)

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.

Last night, 2 December 2023, 44 buses at the Beitbridge border post were stopped and searched after 443 children under the age of eight were found being transported. (Photo: X formerly Twitter / @ClaysonMonyela)

“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

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Marius Kuhn says:

    Well done BMA.

  • jacki watts says:

    What seems to be missed here is the confusion about the motive… There is a vast difference between trafficking and the awful tragedy of children separated from their parents…. Parents who have little to no power in two corrupt countries… SA and Zim….

    • J vN says:

      In both countries, the parents have the vote. If the vote does get stolen in Zimbabwe, well, back when their bellies were full and they had an economy, their parents took up arms against the Rhodesian government. People don’t have to accept having no power, and if they really had a problem with both the ZanuPF and ANC, they’d vote for somebody else, and if that didn’t work, they’d make Plan B. I have less than zero sympathy with people who, every five years, refuse to use their power at the ballot box to improve their own lives.

  • Honesty Jongile says:

    Can children not travel as Unaccompanied Minors, (UM) ? I have done that before with my niece, from here in RSA to Canada. This was by air travel though! Can somebody enlighten me.

    • Penny Philip says:

      I very much doubt any airline would allow a whole plane load of unaccompanied minors . Kids this age cannot travel without a certain amount of adults with them. The bus driver alone cannot be responsible for a full bus load of kids.

  • Honesty Jongile says:

    In fact since these kids had passports on them, they are allowed to travel as un accompanied minors UMs! Additionally they should have been carrying badges written in bold letters…UM. I think on the other side at Park Station, RSA, their parents were waiting for them sincerely, probably!

    Investigate. They could have been coming to RSA with good intentions to see their parents over the festive season and, at the end of which returning to Zimbabwe when schools open!

    • Penny Philip says:

      How does anyone put 44 buses of young children in the care of only a bus driver per bus?? The bus driver cannot be held responsible if any harm come to those kids. A child could be left behind at a toilet/ food stop & if the bus has an accident there is only one adult on each bus. Utter madness!

  • Brian Kritzinger says:

    Out of the blue, they stop 50-odd busses and make a big spash in the media about their “sting operation”, as if this isn’t happening on a daily basis. The only difference here is that the bribes weren’t enough, or to the right cadres, so they were used to make an example. SA Border Management then saw an opportunity to happily spin a good news story to the South African public about this veritable drop in the ocean.

    Pull the other one – it has bells on it.

    • Vas K says:

      Your explanation is very feasible. An operation at this scale must have taken years to establish and plenty of cash must have changed hands at the borders to perfect it. My heart goes to the poor kids and parents.

  • Jan Man says:

    This is absolute NONSENSE!
    It is small children coming to visit their parents in South Africa over the Christmas season. It will only become a crime if the children do not return within 3 months.
    If there was a technical infringement, like not enough accompanying adults or authority letters from the parents / grandparents, it should be mentioned by the authorities and the parents should be allowed the opportunity to correct it.
    I am ashamed to be a South African citizen!

  • Bewe 1414 says:

    Well done!!!!!

  • Iam Fedup says:

    Oh dear. When did I recently hear that a government separated children from their parents for no real valid reasons except to be nasty? Oh yes. It was Trump! It’s disingenuous for the various ANC-appointed “officers” to use emotive words like “human trafficking.” All this was is an attempt from parents to spend a few happy days of Christmas with their children to get away from the catastrophe created in Zimbabwe by the ANC’s fellow gangsters, in a boastful attempt to win some votes. “Oh look how efficient we are at stopping an international crime.”

  • David McCormick says:

    A triumphant tragedy in that the BMA appears to be a rare success story in South Africa.
    Tragedy that productive Zimbabwe citizens, without South African Work Permits, cannot see their children over Christmas, because the success of the BMA reduces the probability of them re-entering South Africa should they go to Zimbabwe for Christmas.

  • Andre Reinecke says:

    Very sad indeed, but the blame should go to the parents. These kids enter the country, then never leave, so it becomes our problem. The fact that it went through the Zimbabwe side, only mean bribery by the bus drivers. Send them all home.

  • No doubt to be used in occult sacrifices….how many are not found?

  • jacki watts says:

    As a DM article, this was disappointing journalism …

  • Rob Wilson says:

    This sounds like good news, and for the first time in a very long time, I see an apt and honest statement from a government official and that is to describe the incident as being ‘criminality with impunity’. It can probably be extended to describe the general state of governance in our country unfortunately. Well done Mr Masiapoto.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    This human trafficking has been continuing for years and it is only now that the South African authorities have become live to the issue. It is very disgraceful for the government and authorities to be doing breast beating after years of incompetence and which continues. We would appreciate to see prosecutions and the failure to arrest the drivers of the busses is a very lame excuse of incompetence and not very much acceptable which shows poor training in border management where the issues of drug trafficking, contraband, illicit trade, human trafficking ought to have been at the top of the crimes they ought to have received training on. The scale of human trafficking is very huge in South Africa and the critical training in this area given several cases of Ethiopians and other nationalities ought to have been apriority including Pakistanis and Bangladeshi nationals. It was disgraceful for the ignorant Minister to actually exculpate the Border guards for incompetence. This country, given its poor immigration management, has been a haven of human trafficking. This crime speaks to failure of the intelligence service both at domestic and international level and we are paying a heavy price for this failure.

  • Leah Mokgobo says:

    How were the children permitted to cross the Zimbabwe side of the border?

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