Horrific conditions for 100s detained in Malawi en route to SA

Cape Town – Hundreds of illegal migrants, most of them from Ethiopia, remain detained in Malawi in appalling conditions after they failed to reach their destination, South Africa, a humanitarian organisation has said.

According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the migrants were detained while on their way to South Africa in search of jobs.

Statistics from Malawi-based Child Rights, Advocacy and Paralegal Aid Centre (Crapac), show that large numbers of African migrants are passing through Malawi en route to South Africa. Anecdotal reports are that the numbers have been on the increase in the past two years, possibly because other nations, such as Mozambique, are making it harder for undocumented migrants to travel through their countries.

Most of these migrants have been imprisoned since December and do not have identity documents.

As "prohibited migrants" they were ordered by the Malawian court to be repatriated within three months of their initial arrest, but they remain imprisoned, MSF said.

At least 193 Ethiopians, 14 Congolese and two Burundians were at Maula Central prison in Lilongwe, whilst others were detained in other prisons across the southeast African country.

In an interview with News24, MSF’s deputy head of mission in Malawi, Nicolette Jackson, shared the humanitarian organisation's grave concerns at the impact of the "extreme" prison overcrowding.

News24: What's the situation with these migrants?

MSF: In Maula Central Prison, in Lilongwe, there are over 300 migrants who are locked up in the remand section of the prison. Some of these migrants were delivered to the prison by the department of immigration in late 2014. As of early August 2015, they still don’t know when they will be released. These men are living in appalling conditions that are endangering their physical and mental wellbeing.

In addition to the migrants in Maula, there are about 100 migrants in three other prisons in Malawi at present.

Maula Prison is the largest prison in Malawi. It’s designed to house 800 inmates but currently it has over 2 400 residents.

News24: So what have been some of your experiences with them?

MSF: As a humanitarian organisation working inside Maula prison providing medical services, we are witnessing the suffering that these migrants are enduring: extreme overcrowding, ill-health, insanitary conditions, inadequate food as well as the mental torment of not knowing when or how they will be released.

Malawi migrants

Ethiopian migrants detained in Maula prison because of their illegal status. They were on their way to South Africa in search of a better future. (MSF)

These men are by their own reports, migrants who are in search of a better life. They are not criminals.

News 24: What is complicating the process of having them freed?

MSF: Negotiating the return of foreigners to their country of origin, without identity papers, has a level of complexity to it. It requires both countries to be aware of the problem and be prepared to act.

An additional complication is that a number of government departments in Malawi need to work together to secure the migrants' release and this is never a straightforward process.

From discussing this issue with government representatives, it appears that while a decision was made by the Malawian government since the end of last year to start detaining migrants in prison, there wasn’t a plan put in place for organising their repatriation to their homelands.

Other multilateral organisations whose remit it is to support governments on managing the movement of migrants have not been pro-active, on this issue either.

News 24: Should the migrants be placed in refugee camps rather than in prisons? 

The refugee camp in Malawi in Dzaleka is for refugees not migrants. While some migrants do go to Dzaleka of their own volition when they arrive in Malawi, the police raid the camp and arrest people they suspect of being migrants.  In the past the immigration department would return illegal migrants to the border, for example with Tanzania.

Malawi prisoners

Prisoners are fed just once a day, due to the small budget that the Malawian Government allocates to the penal system. (MSF)

However, they noticed a trend whereby the migrants would keep returning to Malawi [rather than going home] so that they could continue their journey onwards to South Africa. Malawian government representatives report that they are facing increasing pressure from neighbouring countries to ensure that migrants without travel permits are contained rather than being allowed to transit freely.

News24: What are some of the challenges you are facing in trying to get them released?

MSF: The challenge we have faced in trying to get them free is to mobilise the key actors and agencies and government representatives to take responsibility to act to resolve this critical humanitarian situation. 

I do not believe that it is our job, as a medical aid organisation to ensure diplomatic channels of communication are being utilised between countries in order for foreigners to be released from prison, but this is what we’ve been doing.

News24: Have you, as a humanitarian organisation spoken to the governments involved? If so, what has been the response?

MSF: We have been talking to the governments involved and they have expressed their concern and appreciation for the advocacy we are doing on this. 

We are encouraged by the fact that a workshop is planned in Malawi in a few weeks that will bring together all the key government departments who are involved in the detention of migrants; immigration, police, prisons, plus foreign affairs and the justice department, to strategise for solutions. 

This is a very positive step. However we still believe the burning issue is to secure the immediate release of the hundreds of men who are being detained in prison right now.  MSF strongly believes that this is the first priority. The second priority is to identify solutions so that this doesn’t happen again and the third is to address the bigger problem of overcrowding in Malawi’s jails.  

News24: What’s your biggest fear should the migrants continue to be detained?

MSF: The growing number of migrants who are being locked up for longer periods of time is creating stress on an already overstretched prison system. Prison authorities are reporting the challenges they are facing given their financial constraints, to cover the additional costs associated with feeding, housing and providing medical care to the large number of migrants who have become residents of the prison.


Prisoners sit in an overcrowded cell during the night, struggling to sleep. Overcrowding is a critical problem in Malawian jails. (MSF)

MSF is concerned by the impact of the extreme overcrowding in Maula. The prevalence of communicable diseases and the risk of infection are very high.  On average there are 147 inmates living in a cell that is designed to house 50 to 60 people.  Residents of the prison of Maula have no space to sleep, or keep their belongings because the prison is currently at three times its intended capacity.

Diseases that are transmitted through close contact are very difficult to control in a context such as Maula prison and infectious diseases such as HIV and TB are grave health concerns.  

The food given to inmates is inadequate. They eat only once a day – typically a plate of Nsima (thick porridge).

Malawi migrants

Nutrition is a major concern in Maula prison as inmates receive an inadequate supply of food in terms of quantity, nutritional value and calorie intake. (MSF)

News24: So it’s indeed a dire situation?

MSF: Yes. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment recommends a minimum amount of space per person as 4m² and they should not be confined in these conditions for longer than two days. 

Inmates in Maula are confined in spaces far smaller than that that when they are locked up for 14 hours each evening.  Inmates who are able to lie down to sleep have eight times less space than the minimum of 4m² per person and for those who are forced to sit when they sleep; they have 16 times less than that recommended by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

The water and sanitation situation in the prison is critical and is well below the minimum requirements as defined by humanitarian agencies during an acute emergency.  In Maula Prison there is one tap for 900 people and one latrine for 120 people, whereas the minimum requirements during an emergency are one tap per 200-250 people and one latrine per 20-50 people

News24: Have there been any deaths?

MSF: There have been no deaths amongst the migrants in the prisons where we’re working (Maula and Chichiri) so far. However, our medical staff do notice that the migrants come regularly to the clinic, at least three every day.

They show signs of malnourishment and some are suffering from a skin disease that is commonly related to protein deficiency.  They lack the extra coping mechanisms which Malawian prison inmates have – where families supplement prison rations by bringing food in for their relatives. The migrants don’t have this and it leaves them even more prone to disease.

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