BLANTYRE--Three Malawians, believed to be part of an international ring of human traffickers, were arrested Thursday following the drowning of suspected illegal Ethiopian immigrants.
The group drowned after their boat capsized at a place called Kaporo in the northern border district of Karonga, some 600 kilometres from the capital, Lilongwe.
"We have arrested three Malawians who we think facilitated the movement across the lake of these Ethiopians," said Dave Chingwalu, the Malawi police spokesman. "We're working with our Tanzanian counterparts because we believe there were also Tanzanian human traffickers involved."
Chingwalu said villagers from fishing villages around Kaporo first noticed bodies floating on Lake Malawi on Tuesday morning. "They pulled out two bodies, then three, then five...they decided to alert the police on Wednesday and we have so far pulled out 47 people from the lake," said Chingwalu.
It’s winter time in southern Africa and temperatures do drop considerably at night making Lake Malawi too chilly for lengthy survival for the drowned Ethiopians. Chingwalu said although police do not have the exact number of the drowned information gleaned from the arrested traffickers show there were about 60 on the ill-fated boat.
"The boat capsized because it was overloaded, there were men, women and children and goods as well" he said. "We believe more bodies are still in the waters."
Some villagers also buried some of the bodies before police arrived, according to Chingwalu. Chingwalu said most villagers can’t tell between a Somali and an Ethiopian, thus the initial confusion about the nationality of the drowned immigrants.
Chingwalu said police initial investigations show that the group of Ethiopians crossed into Tanzania through Kenya. Taking advantage of the porous borders between Malawi and Tanzania they used uncharted routes to cross into Malawi.
"We believe that these Ethiopians were using the lake to run away from the roadblocks (police check points) that are in Karonga," he said.
East African immigrants, basically economic 'refugees' from the Horn of Africa countries like Ethiopia and Somalia, use uncharted routes in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique to seek jobs in the region's economic hub, South Africa. United nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Malawi Country Representative Caroline van Buren told MaraPost Thursday UNHCR has been highlighting the dangers of taking to the seas for sometime now.
"Usually migrants move from the Horn of Africa to the south by land but now more and more are taking to the sea," she said. "The dangers are real."
Van Buren said these are not "spontaneous movements".
"These movements are organised by smugglers who tell the migrants that life is better in South Africa," she said. "We know of incidences were smugglers load up in Mombasa, Kenya, and take the migrants to Mozambique and from Mozambique they try to make their way to South Africa."
Van Buren said the latest fatalities are the highest recorded in recent times.
Incidents of Ethiopians and Somalis showing up in villages in northern Malawi are not new. Sometimes after being tipped police are in pursuit after being helped to cross the lake the migrants - usually tired, hungry and sick - are dumped on the Malawi side to negotiate their way across Malawi to the Mozambican border where a fresh set of smugglers help them to cross into Mozambique.
There is also a chain of corrupt police officers on both sides of the border who, in exchange of a tip from the smugglers, assist the migrants.
Van Buren said most of these migrants are not a responsibility of the UN body as they don’t qualify as genuine refugees or asylum seekers. According to the UNHCR, there are at least 15, 000 refugees and asylum seekers being kept at a UNHCR-Malawi Government-run Dzaleka Refugee Camp in the central district of Dowa, some 40 kilometres outside the capital, Lilongwe. Most of them are from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Somalia.
----©2012 The Maravi Post. Reproduction authorised, with usual acknowledgment.