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Malawian Migrant Workers, Back Home From South Africa, Riot in Quarantine

Malawi returnees screened at Mwanza border upon arrival from South Africa. (Courtesy: Pasqually Zulu/Immigration Departmentment)

Malawi is struggling to quarantine migrant workers returning from South Africa who were being tested for the coronavirus. At a facility this week, returnees upset over living conditions clashed with police, and authorities said about 20 returnees escaped.

One migrant laborer, Glory Kayira, returned to Malawi after working in South Africa for five years because she lost her job amid the pandemic.

"As foreigners," she said, "we were living in rented houses. We were supposed to buy food on our own, but we could not manage that.”

Kayira is one of about 600 Malawians who returned Saturday and were quarantined at Mapanga Prison Training School.

The facility was set up to stop the importation of coronavirus cases. Migrants returning from South Africa account for 40 percent of Malawi’s caseload.

But returnees on Sunday torched buildings to protest the poor living conditions. Police used tear gas to end the riot.

'We slept on the floor'

Some returnees said authorities did not inform them they were going to be quarantined.

“We slept on the floor," said returnee Isaac Chikadza. "Mattresses were in short supply.” He said the food was good but the hospitality they received did not meet their expectations.

Officials said all returnees were informed of the quarantine and alleged that some might have been seeking to avoid paying taxes.

More than 150 of those being held tested positive for the coronavirus and were being isolated.

“These people will go home under escort so they will not be missed out in the community," said Penjani Chunda, the government's environmental health officer. "Then they will be handed over directly to the respective health office.”

Malawian authorities were searching for 20 returnees — not yet tested — who escaped during Sunday’s revolt.

Major Emanuel Mzima, deputy commissioner for prisons, said he thought the search would be simple "because immigration authorities have their passports, so it's easy to check and see who is missing."

Thirty-nine other returnees were arrested and charged with planning the scuffle.