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Child Workers in Southern Africa Face Hardship and Abuse

In southern Africa, tens of thousands of poor children reportedly leave home every year to seek work in South Africa, the economic engine of the region. The reason: money. The minimum wage for farm workers in South Africa is about U.S. $131 per month - almost four times the rate they could earn in Mozambique and 13 times the average wage in Zimbabwe.

Abuse and Death

But life for these migrant children is often harsh. At border crossings into South Africa from Mozambique children are often preyed upon by criminal gangs called “magumaguma.”

"If you have a cell phone or money, they will rob you. If you have nothing they will just leave you in the middle of nowhere," a child migrant recently told a team of researchers from Save the Children,an international child advocacy group. For their safety, the identities of the children they spoke to remain anonymous.

"If they find a person there alone at the [border]fence, they kill him straight away," one child told them. "They say, ‘You are trying to cross on your own.’ If you have a phone number then they phone the relatives and say, ‘We have your brother or sister or child, and you must pay us to release this person.’ Sometimes they keep you in a house nearby. They use bush knives and pistols."

Save the Children spoke to hundreds of youth under 18 in southern Africa about their experiences. The children reported incidents of forced labor, sexual abuse and mistreatment by authorities.

Mistreatment by Authorities

"The Zimbabwe police, if they catch you, their rule is they beat you," said one child.

In South Africa, "when you don’t have the right documentation they will be seeing you as an animal," he added.

"They don’t even want to see you walking in their country if you do not have a passport with a visa or an ID or work permit for South Africa. [Employers] give you really hard work, and [if the wage you ask for is too high], they can call the police, who will then come and pick you up." he said.

"When you try to tell the police that you have worked for a number of months with this employer, they can arrest you. The police can even get money from that employer and the matter is ended like that. You can get deported without getting anything."

Deadly Crossing

The children may find various types of employment. Sometimes black market traders hire them to smuggle sugar and tobacco across borders. "We normally face problems of floods when the river is full," a child said. "If the sugar falls in the river, you are ordered to pay for it. The other problem is that you might meet some crocodiles."

"Some may drown and go with the water, while others cross and go on. When someone drowns no one says, ‘Let me leave my sugar here, so that I can see about this accident.’ People just keep on going," the child worker said. "Among those with you, there is no one who cares about you. ’"


Illegal migration impacts thousands of people. South African authorities estimate they repatriate up to 20,000 people each month from Zimbabwe alone. Of these, 4,000 are children.

To stem the problem, Save the Children says it is working to inform young migrants about resources in South Africa where they can go for protection and guidance.

The organization also facilitated a training program to educate and sensitize police and army along the border in South Africa about the enormity of the problem and the rights of children.

"It is not just about setting up new institutions, new bodies and new organizations and new hospitals," said Chris McIvor, Advocacy Director for Save the Children in Mozambique. "I think in the South African context a lot of it is about sensitizing existing institutions and the personnel that work within them around the gravity of this problem and the role that they have to play to help solve it or at least to treat children that they come across in a more sensitive and respectful and accommodating manner than is currently the case,"

Political changes in the region may also help. For example, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have abolished visa requirements for their citizens, allowing easier movement of people and goods.

Children talking to other children about their experiences may also stop others from leaving home to seek work. One interviewee told researchers he would tell his friends to stay home until they grow up and decide for themselves. “When [people] tell you there are lots of jobs and ones that are easy to get, that’s a lie,” he said.