An official crackdown on undocumented migrants in Tanzania has sparked a wave of attacks against Malawians living there, causing many to flee for home. In recent weeks, hundreds of returnees, some still recovering from the beatings they received, have been stranded near Malawi's northern border with Tanzania without funds to continue their journey home.
In July, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete gave irregular migrants until 11 August to leave the country or face deportation. Since the expiration of the deadline, thousands of mainly Burundian and Rwandan migrants have been forcibly expelled.
According to Tanzanian authorities quoted in an online report by the local Daily News over 1,000 Malawians have also been arrested since the start of the operation, code-named "Kimbunga" (Whirlwind).
Some returning Malawians whom IRIN spoke to said they left Tanzania after attacks by locals who, they claim, have been taking advantage of the police crackdown.
Martha Kanyasko, 61, left Malawi's lakeshore district of Nkhata Bay to stay with her son in Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, eight months ago. After the attacks on foreigners began, she said she and her son and his family hid indoors for days, but locals eventually stormed their home, stealing property and beating them up.
She said her son was arrested along with several others, but they were all later released after being told to regularise their stay. Afterwards, she and some of her relatives decided to make their escape, while her son stayed behind. "To get back to Malawi has been a nightmare," she told IRIN.
"We booked tickets with a bus that commutes between Dar es Salaam and Lilongwe, [Malawi's capital,] but we never enjoyed that trip. We occasionally got off the bus and walked long distances because there were local people all over checking who was on the bus. They beat whoever they noticed was an escapee and snatched their property."
Eventually they reached the border with Malawi at Songwe, where they spent four days looking for transport to connect to Mzuzu, the capital of Malawi's northern region, about 275km away. Now Kanyasko is among those stranded in Mzuzu, about 50km short of their destination, because they do not have money to complete the final stretch of their homeward journey.
Amex Mazunda, who was also among the returnees in Mzuzu, suffered a bruised right hand and leg after locals attacked him with bricks as he tried to protect his property.
According to media reports, other foreign nationals have also been affected, but Mazunda said Malawians have been particularly targeted because they are perceived to be more prosperous than many locals. "We Malawians are generally hard-working and we have been investing the little we earn," he told IRIN.
"[The locals] are accusing us that because of our economic superiority, we have made things difficult for them. They say they cannot buy things because we have made the prices go higher, and we just buy without bargaining."
Tanzanian authorities have offered migrants detained during the crackdown an opportunity to regularise their status by applying for residency permits, but according to Mazunda, fear of further attacks has deterred most Malawians from accepting the offer.
"Authorities have warned that anyone found without a document after this offer will be jailed for six months and then deported," added Mazunda.
He said the intensity of the attacks had convinced most Malawians that returning home was their only option. Since the first week of September, hundreds of returnees have been arriving in Mzuzu, most of them on their way to Nkhata Bay.
Those stranded in Mzuzu are camped mainly outside the headquarters of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) Synod of Livingstonia, on the outskirts of the city's central business district.
The victim support unit of the Malawi Police Service (MPS) has been issuing letters to bus transport operators, asking them to allow the returnees to travel for free, but IRIN spoke to many who had been there for several days already, spending their nights in the open.
The Malawian government has been cautious in its handling of the issue. Minister of Information and Civic Education Moses Kunkuyu told a local radio station, Zodiak Broadcasting Corporation (ZBS), on 23 September that his government had not received any official information regarding the situation of Malawians in Tanzania.
On 24 September, Vice President Khumbo Kachali visited some of the returnees staying at the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia and commiserated with them, but fell short of committing any government assistance.
"Government recognises that you have suffered in Tanzania. We say sorry and send apologies from Her Excellency the President, Joyce Banda," he said.
Moses Mkandawire, Director of the Church and Society Programme of the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia, told IRIN that Malawians needed to realise the importance of getting the necessary documents when going to live in foreign countries.
"Exercises like the one being conducted in Tanzania are a routine component for security purposes,” he said. “As such, we expect countries of the affected nationals to assist in repatriating [them] to avoid humanitarian catastrophes."