DEDRIN Mupungu was within touching distance of South Africa, the “Promised Land”, where he hoped all his dreams would come true.
BY NQABA MATSHAZI
After making the torturous journey from his native Uganda, he thought he had made it. He could see the not-so-distant bright lights of Musina, the South African border town.
But he had not given much thought to the Zimbabwean police and the immigration officials and suddenly his dream journey to South Africa turned into a nightmare.
“I was arrested in May last year and sentenced to three months and 10 days in prison in Beitbridge,” he said. “After serving my sentence I was told that I was being brought to Harare for deportation.”
Half a year later, after completing his sentence, Mupungu finds himself still stuck at Harare Central Remand Prison.
“I have not been in touch with my family, as far as they are concerned I am in South Africa,” he said desolately. “Here [prison] they allow us local phone calls, but we cannot call home and we do not know anyone in Zimbabwe.”
Mupungu is one of 20 Ugandan citizens, 13 males and seven females, who find themselves stuck at the Harare Remand Prison.
They have no idea how long they will remain there.
Their situation is further compounded by Uganda not having an embassy in Zimbabwe and they are left to fend for themselves.
The Ugandans are part of 274 foreign inmates, who are all but stranded in Zimbabwe’s prisons.
Zimbabwe is on a migratory route for economic refugees on their way to South Africa. But many never make it to South Africa as they are caught in Zimbabwe, detained and repatriated.
However, for the last few years, Zimbabwe has not been expatriating them because it has no money.
The Zimbabwe Prison Services (ZPS) has said its hands are tied because foreign inmates were the responsibility of the Department of Immigration.
ZPS boss, Paradzai Zimondi recently told journalists that there was nothing they could do about the foreign inmates as their release could only be facilitated by the Department of Immigration.
But the foreign inmates all but loathe immigration officers, whom they accuse of demanding bribes to facilitate their release.
“They tell us to raise our own fares to be deported back to our countries, but how do we do that when we are behind bars?” Asked Jamal Samanda, also from Uganda.
He said when he was arrested he had his passport, but now immigration officials claim it was lost and he cannot be released without it.
Recently, an Egyptian inmate managed to get his family to send him a ticket. But immigration officials are reported to have deliberately held onto the ticket until it expired.
After that, the prisoners charged, the immigration officials approached the Egyptian inmate and demanded that he give them more money so that they could re-book him on another plane.
“We are tired of these immigration officials, what we request is that their boss comes here [Remand Prison] and meets the prisons bosses, so he can get a better appreciation of our situation here,” an inmate from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) said.
Prison officials say an official from the DRC embassy recently visited her compatriots, but tempers flared during a meeting and she left in a huff, never to return again.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has also visited the foreign prisoners and promised to look into ways of assisting them.
But the longer foreign inmates stay in local prisons, the more they become a burden on ZPS’s already strained budget and on the tax payers.
The country’s prisons are crowded and lice-infested; there is shortage of clothing and a balanced diet.
Deputy Minister of Justice, Obert Gutu said the issue of foreign prisoners was complicated as the country could not afford air tickets for their repatriation.
“As they are foreigners, it is complicated and it boils down to lack of resources,” Gutu said. “Due to lack of resources and budgetary pressures, flying them out is not a priority.”
He said for countries that did not have embassies in Zimbabwe like Uganda and Rwanda, the Department of Immigration and the Foreign Affairs ministry must contact their embassies in South Africa.
“It’s a case of people not doing their jobs,” he said.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that there are 5 800 refugees and asylum seekers in Zimbabwe, mainly from the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa.