Cleric in Zimbabwe Decries Growing Migrant Woes amid Country’s Second COVID-19 Wave

Fr. Phillip Kembo.

Fresh COVID-19 regulations in Zimbabwe coupled with migration challenges at the country’s border with her neighbors have led to an influx of Migrants, Internally Displaced People (IDPs), Refugees, and Asylum seekers in the Southern African country, a Cleric ministering in the country has said.

According to Fr. Phillip Kembo, the Vicar General of Zimbabwe’s Catholic Diocese of Mutare, people who are stranded at the border are facing a myriad of challenges, including exposure to COVID-19 infections.

“The question of Migrants, IDPs, Refugees, and Asylum seekers… is of serious concern in Zimbabwe especially as the country goes through the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fr. Kembo said in a reflection published on the website of the Inter-Regional Meeting of the Bishops of Southern Africa (IMBISA).

Making reference to the migration crisis, he added, “This calls for a serious regional integration exercise, based on honest and sincere dialogue between the Church and the responsible civil authorities and NGOs, since migration is almost out of control.”

In the reflection, the Cleric says that COVID-19 infections in Zimbabwe are on the rise and blames the situation on the country’s relaxation of measures that had been put in place earlier to contain the virus.


Between January 7 and January 20 alone, Zimbabwe recorded a total of 11,604 COVID-19 cases. The high rate of infections has prompted the government to put strict lockdown measures in order to contain the pandemic. 

“There was a rise in local COVID-19 infections after the relaxation of the conditions that had been put in place earlier on, to enable people to enjoy their holidays with their beloved during the Christmas holidays,” Fr.  Kembo said,

He added that the relaxation was extended to the opening of borders where those who crossed into Zimbabwe were asked to produce, upon entering the country, a 48-hour COVID-19 Certificate confirming that the bearer of the letter had tested negative to the virus.

“In the event that someone was positive, one was asked to self-quarantine or self-isolate at home,” he said, and added, “The result was that many people managed to cross to Zimbabwe from neighboring countries like Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia.”

Trouble began, he says, when the people, after staying with their loved ones, wanted to go back to work at the end of the holidays.

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Most people, the Cleric says, could not afford to pay for new COVID-19 certificates to show that they still did not have the virus.

And at the border, some people were not permitted into South Africa despite having valid permits and passports, Fr. Kembo narrates, adding that this led to long queues being experienced at the border.

In some instances, he continues in his reflection published January 21, COVID-19-related deaths were reported and recorded at ports of entry especially at the Zimbabwe-South Africa border where the people had been denied passage.

“Being stuck at the border, the people were left with no option, but to return to their homes, while some swam across the Limpopo River, which is infested with crocodiles and even took the risk of crossing through dangerous national parks where a number of dangerous wild animals can be found. In this chaos some women were raped while men had to pay bribes to be allowed to enter back into South Africa,” the official of the Catholic Diocese of Mutare narrates.

Apart from the surge in the COVID-19 infections, the influx of people stranded at the border has also led to the biggest migration challenge, Fr. Kembo says, confirming the concerns expressed by two Catholic Bishops in a January 12 report.


“(There are) many people in search of survival, hence migration, and even the refugee situation,” he says, adding that a big number of vulnerable people including children have sought for refuge in the country’s government owned institutions for food and accommodation.

He says that the government, which is operating with very limited resources, has been trying to look after people stuck in camps.

Churches, which offered relief services, are unable to help since they are also experiencing financial challenges amid a fresh ban on public gatherings in the country.

State-run quarantine centres, which were established in the country at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, are now under-equipped and have become “clusters of contamination,” according to Fr. Kembo.

The centres, he says, have increased the chances of the spreading of COVID-19 since, in most cases, there is insufficient water and food.

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In others, there is no COVID-19 testing going on, putting the lives of those quarantined and even the staff at risk.

The Catholic Cleric says that owing to the sorry state of the quarantine facilities, many returnees escaped from the centres while those who crossed the borders illegally never set foot in the centres.

“This gave rise to the increase in local transmission because there were no testing equipment’s and other Personal Protection Equipment for the front-line staff,” he says.

There is also a scramble for jobs outside Zimbabwe where inflation is at 622 percent, making the country’s economy unattractive. The rush for greener pastures, the Cleric says, is partly to blame for the migration crisis in the country.

“To remain in Zimbabwe is a curse while working outside Zimbabwe seems to be a blessing,” Fr. Kembo says, and explains, “As a result, most people who could not leave Zimbabwe legally risked crossing the border illegally. Some found their way into other government centres under social welfare while others are in safe houses created for those being abused at home.”

In the COVID-19 report in October 2020, the UNHCR stated that Zimbabwe hosts 291,538 people of concern including refugees and asylum seekers, IDPs, victims of Gender Based Violence as well as Stateless people.

Currently, the Tongogara Camp, located about 420 kilometers South-west of Harare hosts about 14,300 refugees.

Because of this big number, the Ministry of Health and Child Care in Zimbabwe has categorized Tongogara Camp as a potential out-break area for the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities at the camp have stated that the number of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants is expected to rise due to the fact that most workers were rendered redundant at the introduction of the lockdown.

Thus, migrants and refugees in Zimbabwe remain at a high risk of contracting the Covid-19 virus and spreading it due to the fact that they are always on the move.

The number of IDPs in Zimbabwe is also on the rise owing to the ongoing rains that have destroyed many homes and livelihoods especially true of the Eastern and Southern parts of the country, Fr. Kembo says.

Additionally, the fear of cyclones like Cyclones Idai of 2019 and the current Cyclone Charlene have left many people displaced with some of them staying in tents, he says.

The Cleric explains in reference to Cyclone Charlene, “This has created a serious health concern to the IDPs who are in the camps. Of these people, most of their homes were completely destroyed and breadwinners were swept by the floods; their animals were also swept away, and they were left with absolutely nothing but their lives only.”