He is only a teenager, but he is already a seasoned border jumper. Dressed in a torn t-shirt and blue work trousers, Robert, 16, (not his real name) told IRIN he had crossed the border from Zimbabwe four times since he first decided to come to South Africa in January this year.
He was arrested and deported for the first time late last month, but returned to the South African border town of Musina, in Limpopo Province, within a day and said he would only stay in Zimbabwe "when I have three things: money, food and schooling".
An orphan from Zimbabwe's south eastern province Masvingo , Robert dropped out of school when he was ten years old to become the sole breadwinner for his grandmother and an elder sister. He returned home earlier this year to take food and money to them.
About one in five Zimbabweans between the ages of 15 and 49 are infected with HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS, which has resulted in growing numbers of child-headed households following the death of parents.
At night Robert sleeps at Musina's taxi rank and during the day searches for casual work washing taxis or unloading goods from trucks at trading stores; on a good day he earns R25 (US$3.50). Other child migrants are said to sleep in abandoned houses at Musina's now defunct copper mine.
|They walk or take the bus to the border after earning money from piece jobs [in Zimbabwe], and the reason they come here [South Africa] is because they are hungry|
During his most recent border crossing the teenager met three other boys his age, but "they went on to Johannesburg, because they have relatives there they can stay with," Robert said.
Hungry and tired, Robert arrived at the Children's Resource Centre, a day facility in Musina's Extension Two township that cares for vulnerable children from both South Africa and Zimbabwe, looking for a meal.
"They walk or take the bus to the border after earning money from piece jobs [in Zimbabwe], and the reason they come here [South Africa] is because they are hungry," the centre's coordinator, Ennie Nelushi, told IRIN.
Day care centre for child migrants
She said more than 500 unaccompanied children from Zimbabwe had visited the centre since it opened three years ago. The facility provides food and water, life-skills training, like HIV/AIDS education, as well as rape and trauma counselling and sporting activities.
Nelushi said the centre did not offer overnight accommodation or formal education, and contact was often lost because "children get arrested and deported, and the police don't inform us".
Staff from the centre routinely look for child migrants in Musina as part of their outreach programme, picking up children as young as ten from as far away as the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, and the eastern city of Mutare, who have run the gauntlet of trafficking gangs at the border, known as "magumaguma" (scavengers).
Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
|Ennie Nelushi of the Children's Resource Centre in Musina|
The magumaguma ferry undocumented migrants across the border for a fee, said to be about R1,500 ($140), although the migrants risk robbery and rape from those who they have paid them for the "service", while other illegal migrants travelling across the border independently are targetted by the gangs.
"Sometimes children have arrived naked [at the centre] after being robbed by gangs, who, if they [migrants] do not have money, take their clothes and gang-rape the girls," Nelushi said.
Zimbabwe's official inflation rate is more than 7,600 percent - the world highest - and shortages of food and fuel are commonplace, while unemployment is estimated at more than 80 percent.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) issued a joint report on Zimbabwe's food security in June, predicting that "people at risk [of severe food shortages] will peak at 4.1 million in the first three months of 2008 - more than a third of Zimbabwe's estimated population of 11.8 million."
It is estimated that since 2000 about a quarter of the population, or three million people, have left the country for neighbouring states, such as South Africa and Botswana, or further afield for Britain and the United States.
Deportations of unaccompanied children common
According to South Africa's constitution and the Child Care Act of 1983, unaccompanied minors must be housed in a place of safety while their personal circumstances are investigated by a social worker, and a Children's Court inquiry opened, conducted and finalised. They also cannot be repatriated across international borders, unless relatives or legal guardians have been traced to ensure the child is handed into their custody on arrival.
Nick van der Vyver, programme manager of the reception centre run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in the Zimbabwean border town of Beitbridge, told IRIN that South Africa did not have enough places of safety for children, but 40 beds were set aside for unaccompanied children at the IOM's Child Care Centre, run by the Zimbabwean government's social services department with the assistance of Save the Children (Norway).
"We agreed that we will take them here and look after them while the reunification process is done," Van Der Vyver said. The process was often difficult because "children are being told by the people taking them over the border not to say anything, and certainly do not say that you are a Zimbabwean, because as soon as you say that you can be deported, so a lot of them just sit there and say nothing."
|16-and 17-year-olds might look like they are 18 and will claim they are when asked by the [Zimbabwean] police [at the reception centre]. As they don't have any documents, it is difficult for the police to verify their ages|
He said the Child Care Centre had processed "plenty of them [children]", although "16- and 17-year-olds might look like they are 18 and will claim they are when asked by the [Zimbabwean] police [at the reception centre]. As they don't have any documents, it is difficult for the police to verify their ages."
The youngest unaccompanied child received at the IOM centre, which opened on 31 May 2006, was a four-month-old baby separated from its mother when police rounded up undocumented migrants in South Africa and the mother evaded arrest.
Another woman who had been arrested "saw that no one was taking care of this baby and realised you can't just leave a baby like that, and started looking after it. She told the [South African] police it was not her baby, but they did not believe her and deported her and the baby," Van Der Vyver told IRIN.
The Child Care Centre tracked down the mother of the child and reunited them.
Although economic concerns forced many children to go to South Africa, he said there were often more unaccompanied minors at the Beitbridge reception centre during the school holidays because parents working in South Africa paid people to smuggle their children across, and those intercepted would end up at the facility.
Mandla Motshweni, programme manager of the Pretoria-based Save the Children (UK), an international child welfare organisation, said they were investigating the plight of Zimbabwean child migrants, particularly in Limpopo province, and were about to release a report on their findings.
He said one of the recommendations would be the establishment of a place of safety in Musina, and a government building had already been identified for this purpose by the organisation and the relevant local authorities.
South Africa's Home Affairs Department did not respond to questions posed by IRIN.