back to the Immigration Detention Monitor

Migrants in Zambia at Grave Risk of Abuse

DW, “Zambia: Dozens of Suspected Ethiopian Migrants Found Dead,” 12 December 2022,
DW, “Zambia: Dozens of Suspected Ethiopian Migrants Found Dead,” 12 December 2022,

On December 11, 27 people were found dead in an agricultural area north of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. The dead, dumped one on top of the other in the street, are presumed to be Ethiopian migrants. According to a police spokesman who spoke to the BBC, the migrants are believed to have “suffocated to death while in transit.” Previously in October, the bodies of 30 presumed Ethiopian migrants were found in a mass grave in neighbouring Malawi.

Although Zambia has historically been the destination for hundreds of thousands of refugees, the country has become an important transit for migrants travelling from the Horn of Africa to South Africa in search of refuge and work. Part of a wider “Southern Route” which includes countries such as Malawi and Mozambique, significant numbers of migrants pass through Zambia, who are often at grave risk of abuse. According to the IOM, “Africa is the second-deadliest region for people on the move, with more than 9,000 deaths during migration documented on the continent since 2014,” says the IOM. “Regional household surveys indicate that these figures are almost certainly a vast undercount.”

On top of this, migrants in Zambia frequently face arrest and arbitrary detention. The country’s Immigration and Deportation Act (2010) provides the legal framework for the arrest and deportation of undocumented and overstaying migrants, for illegal entry, and for unauthorised presence in urban areas. Enforcement is rigorous, at least on paper. Officers are allowed to search workplaces or educational institutions without a warrant if a so-called illegal immigrant is suspected to be there.

In the past, authorities have conducted coordinated operations to reduce the number of undocumented and overstaying immigrants in the country. In 2016, police officers in Lusaka conducted patrols to find “illegal immigrants,” leading to the arrest of 5,747 people. During this operation, authorities primarily focused on the informal settlements around Lusaka where many undocumented migrants reside. Since then, the Department of Immigration has continued to report mass arrests and detention of undocumented migrants.

Child migrants have also been amongst those detained in Zambia. Although Zambian authorities have introduced a National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and associated Guidelines, which provide for the protection of vulnerable non-nationals including unaccompanied children, it appears that children continue to face detention in the country. In June 2022 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recalled joint general comments No. 3 and No. 4 of the Committee on Migrant Workers and Committee on the Rights of the Child (2017) and urged the country to end the use of detention for asylum-seeking, refugee, and migrant children and families with children.

Detained migrants are also frequently deported or removed, even to countries such as Ethiopia where some returned refugees and migrants face serious rights abuses. Indeed, between 8 and 12 September this year alone, 107 people were deported to Ethiopia. As Human Rights Watch has reported, Tigrayans returned to Ethiopia have been arbitrarily detained, mistreated, and disappeared following forced returns from countries such as Saudi Arabia.

In December 2022, the GDP and partner Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) submitted a freedom of information request to Zambia’s Department of Immigration seeking up-to-date and disaggregated statistics detailing the detention and deportation of non-citizens, as well as a list of facilities currently in use for immigration-related detention. As of 22 December, the GDP and LHR had not received a response.