Sunday, February 5, 2023

Illegal immigrants and undocumented workers use WhatsApp to evade police

Using social media technology, illegal Zimbabwean immigrants and undocumented workers have elevated the cat-and-mouse game they play with the police to a level where it will be extremely difficult for the latter to put any points on the board for a really long time to come.

The worst nightmare for (especially dark-skinned) illegal immigrants and undocumented workers is a stop-question-and-search encounter with the police. Typically, such encounter ends with the offenders being loaded into the back of a police van, jailed at a police station for a short period of time, ferried to the Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants before being deported across the border and handed over to Zimbabwean authorities. As Sunday Standard has reported in the past, sneaking back into Botswana is not that difficult courtesy of an underground transit system called “door-to-door.” Through the latter, illegal immigrants are picked up at a rendezvous in the Zimbabwean town of Plumtree, driven through the bush to an ungazetted crossing point and transferred to vehicles on the Botswana side of the border which take them to Francistown.

The problem with door-to-door is that, as a black market activity, it is quite expensive. The answer to enduring long stays in a police cell eating bad food, losing unrefereed fights, sharing a filthy toilet, being deported and paying a princely sum for the door-to-door service has come in the form of WhatsApp. By merely investing as little as P800 in a WhatsApp-enabled smart phone, tens of thousands of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants as well as undocumented workers can now easily evade police officers who go out to search for them on a daily basis. One Gaborone WhatsApp group has a mixed-gender group of 300 members who post periodic updates about police movements in the city. A sub-group of this same group has more than 40 female-only members who offer day household labour.

Before he leaves home, a group member in Mogoditshane who wants to travel to the casual-labourer pick-up point in White City opposite Orapa House, first checks the very latest WhatsApp updates on police roadblocks along the route of the combi he wants to use to see what’s up.

“The alerts will reveal whether the police along that route are stopping car-taxis or combi-taxis or both,” says a source whose WhatsApp group monitors the Mogoditshane-Gaborone worker migratory routes. “If they are stopping car-taxis, you take a combi, if they are stopping combi-taxis, you take a car taxi, if they are stopping both, you scroll through the latest updates to identify a safe route into Gaborone.”

Members also post when they see police officers patrolling the streets, providing such useful details as time and location. Some posts that Sunday Standard has seen are of police officers patrolling the streets with ample background detail to help fellow members pinpoint the location.

Besides roadblocks, police patrol the streets, stopping and questioning people they suspect to be Zimbabwean. Such patrols take them to casual-labourer pick-up points in White City and Gaborone West Phase 2 where hundreds of Zimbabweans converge on a daily basis to offer services to cars that pass by. A WhatsApp group member who plies his/her trade at either point, checks for updates on his/her cellphone before going there. While police are still making some arrests, the arrest rate is said to have gone down significantly thanks to this WhatsApp innovation.

Illegal immigrants and undocumented workers are doing a terrific job of keeping yards and houses clean as well as looking after children ÔÇô actually raising them in some cases. However, the trade-off is incommensurate because they also exert untold pressure on public services that the government fund on what are often shoestring budgets.


Read this week's paper