Sunday, June 17, 2012

Southern Times-Trading in Souls


By Charles Mkula Published: 20120615

Experts have said that despite the lack of comprehensive statistics on human trafficking in Malawi, the Southern African nation is facing an alarming increase in such cases, especially involving women and girls who are exploited as sex workers in brothels, bars and restaurants.

Nkhata Bay District ‑ the northern lakeshore tourist destination ‑ is reported to be one of the worst affected areas in the country.

Many victims end up in South Africa, Europe and the United States of America.

According to Nkhata Bay District Police Sub-Inspector Brown Ngalu, apart from the trafficking of people from the area, Nkhata Bay is also a conduit for international human trafficking and people smuggling.

Ngalu has said the police have in the recent past intercepted illegal moving of humans from the DRC, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan through Lake Malawi, Africa’s third largest lake.

Malawi Human Rights Commissioner Grace Malera acknowledges that the problem of human trafficking is not clearly understood by people because of the difficulties in verifying cases “since the practice is veiled and because of the ignorance about the conduct among law enforcers and the communities”.

She observes that 500 to 1 500 adults are trafficked; while 400 women and 50 children are taken from their homes for exploitation every year in Malawi.

Malera says there have been efforts to track down victims and return them to their homes, but “because of poverty, when the victims come back home they are faced with the same poverty situations that tempt them to find other means of earning a living thereby being susceptible to be lured into the human trafficking trap again”.

The biggest problem though, despite efforts by law enforcement agents to stem the trafficking in people, could be the absence of comprehensive laws in Malawi to deal with the scourge.

Assistant Commissioner Noel Kayira, the National Community Policing Co-ordinator, says the Malawi Police Service intercepts around 90 percent of human trafficking attempts – a claim that NGOs and activists dispute, using the argument that such crimes are under-reported and the authorities simply cannot have a full picture of the problem on a national scale.

Kayira concedes that the absence of laws dealing with the crimes are frustrating their efforts.

“In the absence of specific laws on human trafficking, prosecutors use the existing statutes such as the Penal Code, the Labour Act, Immigration Act and the Child Rights and Protection Act,” he says.

But, he notes, the sentences handed down to perpetrators are just not stiff enough to deter would-be offenders from engaging in human trafficking.

“It is frustrating for the police to mobilise and expend resources in investigating and prosecuting when the courts would not give stiff punishments to offenders.”

Another problem with confronting human trafficking in Malawi is that in some communities, there simply is no awareness that the practice is a crime.

Families are convinced to sell off their children to traffickers and they do so in the belief that the children are destined for a better life abroad.

For a poor family, promises of a better life for their children – combined with a small “down payment” for those who remain behind – is sufficient inducement to unwittingly participate in human trafficking.

The police have embarked on awareness campaigns so that people are empowered to make informed decisions when approached by human traffickers.

But there is another factor that the country must deal with: police corruption.

It is has been alleged that in some cases, police officers accept bribes from traffickers. The bribes are offered, and paid, either before the crime has been committed so that the police look aside, or after perpetrators have been apprehended and they want to be released.

There are other institutional challenges to confronting human trafficking.

One of these is the passport issuance regime. Critics say the authorities issue passports too readily and thus abet human trafficking as it is not difficult for perpetrators to procure legal documentation both for themselves and for the people they are trafficking.

Yoneco Nkhata Bay District Manager, Wezi Ntonga, says that human trafficking in Malawi mostly thrives on poverty and a knowledge gap among and within communities.

Her assessment is that trafficking of human beings for exploitative purposes is once again ‑ after the slave trade ‑ a growing industry which poses serious threats to human security and development.

“Within Malawi, human trafficking is mostly for labour and sexual exploitation,” she says, adding that “this is a serious human rights violation against human dignity”.

Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), an NGO with funding from the Royal Norwegian Embassy, is one of the groups that are assisting the government of Malawi and other stakeholders in combating the vice through various strategies. One of the strategies is raising awareness among the public on the different forms of human trafficking and how they can go about making reports to stop the practice.

Recently, NCA and the Free Expression Institute organised a public discussion in Nkhata Bay District to stimulate public debate and generate the necessary action against human trafficking.

During the public discussion, which was broadcast in full by at least one radio station, participants largely agreed that Malawi was experiencing an upsurge in trafficking of people – particularly females – both within the country and outside its borders.

They noted that males were targeted for cheap agricultural and factory labour, as well as for work in the fishing industry that is a mainstay of the national economy.

Responding to a contribution by participant Jeremiah Phiri, who had alluded to the fact that human traffickers more easily targeted and enticed women and girls because of their economic and social vulnerability, Ntonga said they had introduced Village Savings and Loans economic empowerment programmes in a number of communities to empower female members of society.

The logic is that if women have a greater say over their destiny, human traffickers are less likely to target them.

Jacob Nyirongo of World Vision International asked the residents of Nkhata Bay to be more creative and find ways of using Lake Malawi as a source of employment.

In her response to complaints over the absence of a specific law on human trafficking in Malawi, Habiba Osman – who is the Project Co-ordinator for the Prevention of Human Trafficking at the Norwegian Church Aid ‑ said that since 2010 the Malawi Law Commission has been working on a comprehensive Anti-Human Trafficking Bill.

The Bill is awaiting Parliamentary approval.

Osman, a human rights lawyer, stressed that human trafficking was difficult to confront without strong laws and regulations.

She pointed out that while the country uses legal frameworks provided for by the Penal Code, the Immigration Act, the Malawi Citizenship Act, the Employment Act, the Extradition Act and the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act together with the provisions of Chapter IV of the Constitution (which guarantee the right to liberty, dignity, prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment or torture and protection of children against economic exploitation among other rights), Section 27 of the constitution prohibits slavery and servitude, forced, tied or bonded labour and Section 31 provides for fair and safe labour practices.

“Human Trafficking is linked to poverty and it is imperative that human trafficking stakeholders should come up with a holistic approach that addresses the factors that disposes women and girl children to the act,” she warned.

Osman has urged stakeholders to lobby MPs to pass the Anti-Human Trafficking Bill.

• To report suspected incidences of human trafficking, the Malawi public can call the police anonymously on 997 and 990; or they can contact the NGO Yoneco on toll-free number 80001234.

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