Chimoio — Zimbabwean immigrants in Mozambique are being harassed and preyed upon by thieves and corrupt cops taking advantage of their poor facility with the local Portuguese language to fleece them, it has emerged.
Cops and criminals donning police uniforms have taken to hunting down foreigners and using the language barrier to confuse them before frisking and confiscating their valuables, Zimbabweans here have claimed.
Mozambique is experiencing an economic upturn with double digit growth fired by billions of dollars in foreign direct investment (FDI). The country's FDI inflows have boomed since 2010 and in 2012 the country received 15% of all sub-Saharan African FDIs.
This has made Mozambique attractive to immigrants from Zimbabwe where an economic crisis lasting nearly two decades has left unemployment estimated at around 90 percent.
However, Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony and the English language is hardly used, complicating life for travellers to the country.
Rodreck Patana, 45, who works as chef at a local restaurant claims he was once robbed by corrupt cops who threatened him with jail despite the fact that he had valid travel documents.
"My bag was searched and they took away my Mozambique Meticals while threatening to throw me into their notoriously filthy cells.
"We had a nasty exchange of words as I argued in English but the cops would not barge and continued to speak in Portuguese. In the end, I gave up and allowed them to take my $10.
"They know that, as Zimbabweans, we have access to US dollars," said Patana.
The cat and mouse chases between immigrants and corrupt cops are rampant in Manica and Chimoio towns which are also the favourite destinations for Zimbabweans due to their proximity to the eastern border city of Mutare.
Zimbabweans also have had a longstanding emotional and historic attachment with Chimoio after the town witnessed the massacre of thousands of refugees by the Rhodesian regime during the liberation struggle.
And the economy across the border continues to deteriorate, Chimoio is again seeing hundreds of Zimbabweans coming over in search of work or second-hand clothes shipped into Mozambique as aid from developed nations.
It remains unclear how many Zimbabweans are living in Mozambique but the International Office of Migration says between 500,000 and four million have left the country over the last decade or so, most of them settling in South Africa.
For some of the immigrants however, the host countries have not been very welcoming or accommodating.
Illegal and arbitrary arrests
Richard Mawoyo, 34, an immigrant who works as transporter in Chimoio, said language was the tool of choice for Mozambican police when carrying out illegal and arbitrary arrests on foreigners.
"I once lost money to the police after they arrested me and conducted a search. They discovered that I had $50 and confiscated the cash. Actually, I did not get to understand what they were saying.
"I had all the necessary documents but they still took away my money after claiming that I had flouted the country's foreign exchange regulations," said Mawoyo, adding "I can't speak Portuguese but I know how to do my job and I had certainly not breached the law."
Worse still, he said he could not seek redress because everyone at the local police station was only speaking in Portuguese.
"I was given documents in Portuguese and I realised that they were taking advantage of the fact that I did not understand the language.
"These are the same people who are supposed to protect us, but they are taking advantage of the language barrier and economic hardships in our country to harass and rob us."
Another immigrant, Chris Muropa, 23, said he once spent the whole day cleaning classrooms at a local school after he misunderstood a police order.
"I was on my way to sell my stuff in Chimoio in the morning and passing a police station while the local flag was being raised," explained Muropa who buys second-hand clothing for resale in Zimbabwe.
"I was told to stop but I failed to understand the language at the time. I was detained at the police station. The cops asked for $10 bribe which I did not have. I was then taken to a local school where I was ordered to clean the classrooms.
"They also confiscated my travel documents and only released me around mid-day after cleaning the classrooms without payment."
Blackmore Sanhanga, another regular traveller across the Mutare border, said the harassment started at the height of Zimbabwe's economic meltdown in 2008 when locals were forced to flock into Mozambique for basic goods and foodstuffs.
"The Mozambican police would get easy money from illegal immigrants," said Sanhanga.
"Now that the numbers have dropped after Zimbabwe adopted the multi-currency regime they (police) are targeting everyone. They know that it's not easy for us to communicate with them."
"It's a strategy they use to frustrate you," Casilda Johns, an immigrant working for a Chinese company constructing a road from Machipanda to Beira.
"They will read their laws in Portuguese and there is no translator, either at the immigration or the police post to assist. They will threaten to lock you up in their most filthy jail cells and, at the end, you pay just the police."
Johns said the cops are only spare Chinese and other immigrants from Europe because they fear they may be reported to government officials.
"Their strategy is to either threaten you with the feared Mozambican jail cells if your papers are not in order or, when you have all your documentation, they just harass you until you pay up. They take advantage of the language barrier to frustrate you."
"Mozambicans should know that as much as they helped us during the liberation struggle, we also assisted them during their civil war," said Michael Sithole from Chipinge who works in Espungabeira.
"We are one people and even our border communities are ruled by chiefs whose traditional jurisdiction spill across the colonial borders."
He said there were a lot of Mozambicans who cross the border to trade in Mutare without being subjected to any form of harassment by Zimbabwean police even though some do not have proper travelling documents.
Mozambican consulate staff in Zimbabwe's eastern border city of Mutare who requested anonymity as they are not authorised to speak to the press said the harassment was unacceptable and urged people to report such incidents.
"Immigrants must take up their issue to senior (police) station officers because we believe this is being done by a few corrupt officers. Our citizens are peace loving people and we don't want our country's name to be tainted by few individuals," said the official.