The World Cup has football fans in its grip, but away from the main spectacle in South Africa, children, some alone, are fleeing Zimbabwe and flooding in to the country. UK charities are among those working with them.
Leeroy Sibanda is 16. The eldest child in his family, he has left his brother, sisters and mother in Zimbabwe to cross illegally in to South Africa to seek work.
According to Save the Children, he came from Harare but lacked the proper immigration documents and was refused entry at the official border point between the two countries.
Instead, he swam the Limpopo river crossing.
He survived the crocodiles, but was greeted on the other side by the goma-goma – robbers who occupy the areas of bush land along the border and prey on refugees who try to cross.
They stole all the money he had – R150 (£13) – and beat him up.
Children from Zimbabwe don’t have money, so have to pay by other means
Ida Asia Director of programmes in Musina
His story is not unusual in Musina, the South African town a few miles from the border with Zimbabwe to the north.
Ashley Brighton, also 16, is from Matabeleland. He left a brother, sister and parents in Zimbabwe to escape the food shortages and to try to regain the education he cannot have at home – until February Zimbabwean teachers were on a year-long strike.
Both are now among the 148 boys under 18 in the care of a transit centre run by a local church. Most are about their age.
It gives them shelter during the months it takes to process their asylum applications.
Save the Children works there, and with women and girls in the town’s female shelter.
Africa’s busiest route
Musina is on reputedly the busiest road in Africa, a main route linking South Africa with the rest of the continent and the funnel for thousands of Africa’s refugees seeking work in the big cities like Johannesburg to the south.
Figures released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on 15 June put the number of new asylum claims in South Africa in 2009 at more than 222,000. It was the single largest asylum destination in the world.
Children in Musina church centres June 2009-May 2010Continue reading the main story
•15 to 17-year-olds: 1,013 •11 to 14-year-olds: 161 •6 to 10-year-olds: 526 •Under five-year-olds: 31 Source: Save the Children
A handful of non-governmental bodies and government agencies work in the town.
Save the Children operates out of an office, and a converted shipping container nearer the border, decked in the charity’s livery.
It’s a first port of call for famished and thirsty children who have often walked for days to reach them, cutting holes in the border fence to get there.
“The ones getting to the entry point, they have already been through so much,” says Ida Asia, the charities director of programmes in Musina.
“They have been bitten by snakes; there are crocodiles in the Limpopo. There are adults hanging around in the bush, the goma-gomas, preying on people, waiting for people coming through, taking their money and belongings.
“Guys say they will carry you through the river, but you have to pay. Children from Zimbabwe don’t have money, so have to pay by other means, so they are being raped and assaulted on a daily basis.
“You have to remember they are only children.”
World Cup’s promise
The charities see far fewer girls than boys, they believe because girls can be more easily hidden during the border crossing, or silently absorbed into domestic work, or trafficked and tricked into prostitution.
Anna Mundanga is among those providing food, shelter and schooling
“The whole childhood has gone,” says Ida.
“The few girls we see, most of them are pregnant or have a baby already, at 14, 15, 16. From a relationship or from being raped coming through the bush land.”
The charity’s Cheryl Blankenberg says there is “a high probability” the World Cup has increased the number of children who have crossed recently, attracted by the tournament’s economic promise.
“The World Cup may make it seem like the streets of the big cities are paved with gold but in reality a child’s life here may be more dangerous and poverty-stricken than the one they left behind,” she says.
Since the tournament began, there have been almost 50 new arrivals at the transit centre, taking the total number of boys and girls staying to more than 200 for the first time in six months.
‘Wolves in sheep’s skin’
So what can any charity usefully do there?
“We provide quite a range of services,” says Anna Mundanga, the transit centre’s assistant manager. “Food, shelter, a blanket, clothes, hygiene kits.
Children brave crocodiles in the Limpopo River
“We provide counselling and send them to school if they want to go.”
Sixty of the boys have a school place; the others attend an informal school at the centre. There is healthcare, HIV medical care, paralegal help.
All the children’s details go into a database, to keep track of them, to monitor those who repeatedly try to enter and to reunite them with their families if possible.
The grim situation for refugees heading for Musina was highlighted in a report from the International Organisation for Migration, “Wolves in sheep’s skin” released earlier this year.
It reported evidence of migrants trafficked for “sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, labour exploitation, forced criminal activity and extortion” and pinpointed girls and unaccompanied minors as being most at risk.
It suggests solutions – better training for staff to identify trafficking, a strengthening of the government’s role with community groups, better health care, more staff, more shelter, better organised repatriation.
Other children cut holes in the border fence with Zimbabwe to get through
Staff in Musina say the governments of South Africa and Zimbabwe must set out what agencies should be doing with the children.
And there is optimism that the World Cup can help. Anna hopes the tournament will improve people’s perception about Africa.
While her charges are frustrated they cannot reach the cities where the tournament is played out and benefit from its supposed riches, they remain positive.
“The World Cup is good for South Africa it will bring in foreign currency. It will make South Africa a rich country,” says Leeroy.
“It’s a big event that will unite all the people,” adds Ashley.