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Human trafficking in Malawi goes unabated

In July 2016, a truck carrying 57 Malawian children was intercepted in South Africa – after the driver and his two accomplices had successfully navigated their way through the Mozambique and Zimbabwe border posts. Problem Masau probes deeper to find out about human trafficking in Malawi.

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In Karonga, a remote village in Malawi’s Northern Region, close to the border with Tanzania, children play restlessly in the swamps as men and women go about their daily chores. Muddy huts tell a story of an impoverished village that survives on less than a USD1 a day. To an outsider this is a familiar story of rural life on the continent – families surviving on the barest of necessities – but to human traffickers this is a source of cheap labour.

With limited opportunities available for schooling or employment, children are promised good living conditions in neighbouring countries and a number of them are trafficked under the guise of being offered a well-paying job.

“Strange people from Tanzania come here, promising our children manna from heaven,” said 63-year-old Enock Mutinje, who has been living in this remote village his entire life. “Often the young boys and girls are tempted and a few have disappeared. We never heard from them again.”

Human trafficking in Malawi continues to soar, despite stringent efforts by the government and civil society to make sure it does not happen.

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Source of cheap labour

Malawi, the impoverished country that borders Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, has been a source of cheap labour for decades. According to a report by the US State Department, Malawi is a source country for men, women and children who are then subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. To a lesser extent, it is a destination country for men, women and children from neighbouring countries who are subjected to labour and sex trafficking, and it is a transit country for people being trafficked to South Africa.

‘Most Malawian trafficking victims are exploited within the country, with victims generally transported from the southern part of the country to the central and northern regions. Children are subjected to forced labor in the agricultural sector, goat and cattle herding, and brickmaking. Frequently, traffickers entice families to part with their children with the promise of work as farm laborers, subsequently subjecting the children to forced labor or sexual exploitation,’ the report reads.

Rev Zacc Kawalala, the chairman of the Ethics, Peace and Justice Commission (EPJC) of the Evangelical Association of Malawi, said the first step to curbing human trafficking in the country would be to tackle the root cause: poverty. “Government should seriously consider implementing pro-poor and sustainable policies and programmes that add value to the economy and help in eradicating extreme poverty, rather than opting for short-term politically motivated policies and programmes that do not add any value to the economy, and also addressing extreme poverty and unemployment in general,” he said.

In July this year, a truck carrying 57 Malawian children was intercepted in South Africa after the driver and his two accomplices had successfully navigated their way through both the Mozambique and Zimbabwe border posts. According to Times LIVE, the men, aged between 25 and 36, had refused to open the back of their truck when they were apprehended by the police. When police opened the truck‚ two children fell to the ground‚ South Africa’s acting National Police Commissioner, Kgomotso Phahlane, said.

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“This tells you that these children were being transported as if they were goats. They are now well looked after under the auspices of the Department of Social Development in the North West Province [as] these centres provide support and care in line with the Child Care Act‚” said Phahlane.

In May, immigration officers in Zambia rescued four Malawian girls believed to have been trafficked. According to Malawi24, the girls, who were picked up at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, were believed to be set to travel abroad when operatives made contact with them.

Prominent Malawian human rights activist, Action Amos, says the state needs to tighten its border controls. “The problem is that the country’s borders are porous. This is not a problem in Malawi only but throughout SADC. Honestly, it boggles the mind that a truck carrying children can pass through three different countries. It tells of the state of affairs in Southern Africa,” Amos told This is Africa.

Government response

The Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in Malawi, Francis Kasaila, said the government was concerned with the rise in human trafficking. “As the government, we are deeply worried about the upsurge in human trafficking cases. There are also reports that young girls are being trafficked to Gulf countries such as Kuwait. We have put proper legislation in place to curb this vice,” Kasaila told This is Africa.

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In February 2015, the government passed anti-trafficking legislation, establishing a comprehensive legal framework to address trafficking in persons. Malawi’s anti-trafficking law prohibits all forms of trafficking and prescribes punishments of 14 years to life imprisonment, with no option of fines. In additionally, the Employment Act and Articles 135 through 147 and 257 through 269 of the Penal Code criminalise forced labor and forced prostitution – although the law does not define child sex trafficking in accordance with international law, which provides that the exploitation of the prostitution of children is trafficking regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion is used. However, while legislation is in place, trafficking will not be stopped in its tracks if poor border control allows unscrupulous traffickers to continue their heinous trade.