Children on the move
April 2013 - Some people attempt to cross Zimbabwe’s border into neighbouring South Africa or Botswana for economic reasons, but for seventeen-year-old Nicholas Sibanda, it seems it was just to be with his mother again.
Nicholas is sitting in an office, looking bewildered. He is willing to talk and gives direct eye contact with his large, open eyes. In 2009, his mother left him living with his grandma and three younger cousins while she looked for a job in Botswana. Soon after, Nicholas had to drop out of school because his grandmother, who sells fruit for a living, could not afford his school fees.
“I wanted to stay in school, because I wanted to be a teacher,” says Nicholas with determination. He adds that his favourite subject is English. His English is good and he is clearly bright. However, for the past two years, he says, he has just stayed at home “doing nothing.”
Then, two months ago, his hopes were raised. “My mother phoned from Botswana to ask me to come and live with her,” says Nicholas, now twisting his hands nervously in his lap.
Nicholas explains how he sneaked across the border into neighbouring Botswana at night with a group of children. None of them had any documents, and police arrested Nicholas before he had the chance to find his mother. Instead, he was held in a detention centre with adults for a week. When asked about the whereabouts of his father, he suddenly breaks down, gasping for breath through his sobs.
Nicholas has just arrived at the Plumtree Child Reception Centre in Zimbabwe, where he will stay for about three days. During that time he will be assessed while his family are traced. He will be fed, able to shower and sleep in a bed. The kindly looking counsellor will have a session with him using all sorts of techniques, including getting him to draw to understand how he feels. Nicholas will have the chance to talk about his problems and his ordeal, especially during the detention period in Botswana. Some 42 cases of physical abuse have been reported by returning children; the perpetrators, they say, were mainly the police in Botswana, prison wardens and other detainees.
In contrast to the detention centre, the reception centre in Zimbabwe is only for children. It is homely, set amidst well kept flowering gardens, lush green grass and brightly painted murals. Inside the centre, the walls are freshly painted and decorated with drawings. Some look comical, but they all have serious protection messages, dealing with topics such as trafficking and child prostitution. There is a television to watch and games to play, including a type of “snakes and ladders” with protection issues incorporated into the game.
The reception centre opened in December 2008. It is part of a cross-border project to provide interim care and protection to unaccompanied deported children and reunite them with their families. It is a partnership project involving the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), UNICEF and Save the Children-Zimbabwe, an NGO. So far, a total of 1,167 children have passed through. All have been reunited with their families or placed in alternative care.
There are huge challenges, concedes Mbiganyi Tshuma, child protection officer for Save the Children. “Many of the children are suspicious of us when they arrive as they have been arrested, detained along with adults and some have been abused, included sexually. The boys in particular do not like to talk about that.” Nineteen girls arriving at the centre have been pregnant.
Once they have traced the family, Save the Children tries to reunite the children with them and reconcile problems through counselling. During their stay at the Child Reception Centre children are also exposed to life skills activities and safe migration information. Tshuma adds that many of the children will try to cross the border again illegally because “the factors that led them to cross illegally have not been resolved.”
Maxim Murunngweri, another child protection officer for Save the Children, carries out follow up visits after the children have been returned to their homes to see how they are coping. Tshuma says they are going to phone Nicholas’ mother in Botswana and will also contact his grandma. With the help and support of staff at the Reception Centre, Nicholas should soon be safe at home.