Immigrants: Ethiopians discovered in a mass grave in Malawi are believed to have suffocated

Investigators and campaigners suspect that the dozens of Ethiopians whose bodies were discovered in mass graves in northern Malawi last month died of suffocation while being transported covertly.

The tragedy occurred in the midst of a string of cases highlighting the risks that tens of thousands of people take on in order to travel through criminal networks and reach South Africa, the richest nation on the continent.

In two graves in the secluded Mtangatanga forest reserve in the northern region of Mzimba, 29 dead were found by Malawian authorities last month. These have now been provisionally identified as the remains of migrants traveling from Ethiopia to South Africa when they were between the ages of 25 and 40.

Even though the 5,000-kilometer “southern route,” as it is known, from east Africa to South Africa is as dangerous as any other, the dangers facing those moving within the continent receive little attention compared to the plight of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean or the deserts of northern Africa.

“The southern path is no exception to the rule that all irregular migration routes are risky,” said Dr. Ayla Bonfiglio, a specialist at the Mixed Migration Centre in Geneva.

Protesters worry that the real death toll along the southern route is far higher than is publicly believed.

Caleb Thole, national coordinator of the Malawi Network against Trafficking, said: “There are thousands and thousands in transit. There could be so many [dead] we don’t know about.”

In a report released earlier this year, the IOM stated that people via the southern route encountered “serious lacks of access to basic requirements and services, as well as violent experiences, exploitation, and abuse.”

Nearly 100 people were discovered hiding in an empty tanker by police in Mozambique last week. Reporters were informed by local officials that the men and 10 women had agreed to pay the driver 2,500 Rand (£110) each in exchange for being brought to South Africa.

One individual said to local media, “We left Malawi inside the tanker. We were going to South Africa to look for work. In our nation, life is difficult. We made every effort to get to South Africa for that reason.

The bodies of 64 Ethiopian males who had suffocated in a sealed shipping container on the back of a truck that was allegedly traveling from Malawi to Zimbabwe were found by Mozambican immigration officials two years ago. The victims were believed to have traveled as far as South Africa.

The victims whose bodies were discovered in the mass graves were believed to have perished in a similar catastrophe, according to officials and campaigners in Malawi, an important staging area on the southern route. Early investigation indicates the deaths, which most likely resulted from asphyxia, happened in late September.

According to a police spokeswoman, peasants in the Mzimba region, around 155 miles (250 km) north of the country’s capital, Lilongwe, who were gathering wild honey in a forest, notified authorities to the mass graves.

Thole claimed that the forest’s isolation and difficulty of access made it a favorite among smugglers. “People are free to stop here and do anything they like. Law enforcement officers are facilitating this activity through our porous borders, he claimed.

Earlier this year, one of Malawi’s political parties, United Transformation Movement, suspended its regional secretary amid claims she had used a party vehicle to transport people into the country illegally.

A hub for trafficking is Dzaleka, a sprawling refugee camp abot 50km from Lilongwe, the capital city.

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