Scores of asylum seekers from African countries are languishing in Zimbabwe prisons with hardened criminals as most of them are quickly
arrested by authorities upon arrival.
This came to light when Deputy Minister of Justice, Obert Gutu toured
Harare Remand Prison facility.
The prisoners from countries such as Zambia, Somalia, Ethiopia and Rwanda were last week given a rare opportunity to air their views at one of Harare’s most notorious prisons.
The account were chilling as some prisoners say they have been kept for over two years after serving their sentences.
A refugee who did not give his name but comes from the Democratic
Republic of Congo said he was arrested two years ago while on his way
to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR).
“The first time I went to the courts there was a language barrier since in DRC we speak French. I could not understand a word of English and I was told to come back some other time,” he said.
When he appeared in court for the second time he was fined US$100 for
violating the country’s immigration laws but he remains in jail even after a Good Samaritan paid the fine on his behalf.
“I am running away from war and wish to be taken to the refugee camp,
I have no relatives in Zimbabwe and I have no money. I wonder why I am
being kept here,” he said.
The main refugee camp is Tongogara, south east of the country, which
houses about 5 000 refugees.
There are reports, however, of social tensions and sexual violence being on the rise, with Burundians being expelled from the country for fomenting violence.
The remand prison is also teeming with a number of Somalis, who seemed
quite happy and expectant that the deputy minister could help them in
their quest for freedom and asylum.
Said a Zambian inmate, “I have served 10 years in Zimbabwe and when I
asked why I am not being set free I was told to raise an air fare to South Africa.
“I have been here for a long time and since my relatives do not know where I am how can I raise the amount?” He said since there is no direct flight lining the two countries immigration authorities insist that he buy an air ticket to South Africa and another one to Zambia as the only way to win his freedom.
“(Deputy) minister I beg you please help me, as I can only raise bus fare. I have served my time and I deserve to be free,” he pleaded.
The prison officials could not give an indication of the number of asylum seekers in jail but Gutu said he was aware that the immigration department was handling some cases.
UNCHR representative to Zimbabwe Marcelin Hepie said they recently handled a case of six Somalis who have since been released. “We do handle similar cases during our routine visits. The largest group was that of six Somalis who have since been released.”
Although according to the UNCHR figures released last month, Zimbabweans topped the list of people seeking asylum last year, hundreds of refugees from across Africa arrived in the impoverished country.