Mozambique has, in recent years, become a notorious destination for Malawian children as cases of child trafficking continue to escalate in border districts of Phalombe, Mulanje and Zomba. Their captors lure the unsuspecting minors into labour exploitation by false promises of good pays from working on farms. Over 30 children are rescued every six months in Phalombe alone by anti-child trafficking authorities led by the police. In this Friday Shaker, MANDY PONDANI takes us to Phalombe where she follows up on the experiences of some of the victims.
Smart was only 12 when he was taken to Mlumbu District in neighbouring Mozambique to work in a tobacco farm.
He had been trafficked from Mulanje, through Phalombe, by a family friend who promised him a good pay and a better life.
But arriving in the compound of his then master, Smart recalled in an exclusive interview recently that he was welcomed to strenuous duty calls than he expected.
He said looking at the health and physical conditions of the workers that he had found on the farm, it was clear to him that he was in for hard labour.
“I was scared and I kept weeping in my heart; my voice could not come out because I was not sure of what would befall me if I openly cried. My mind was crowded with various thoughts about my stay in this foreign land at the hands of strangers,” he explains.
The last contact he had with his captor, he said, was on arrival, when he left him in the hands of a foreman on the expansive farm.
“When we got there, I was introduced to a tall-middle aged man identified as John. That was the last time I heard and saw the family friend who got me the job. John told our group of about 15 young men of how generous the boss was; the boss I never got to meet till I returned home,” Smart explained.
After working for just a month and tired of all the harsh working conditions on the tobacco farm, one Saturday evening, young Smart escaped from his workplace and headed for the Mauzi Border area.
He lingered around the place until he met his rescuers, an outreach Christian group from Malawi which took him back to his home in Mulanje after hearing his ordeal.
“He told us he suffered physical brutality on almost a daily basis. He never got to receive the handsome pay that [Smart] was promised,” said one member of the group, Gibson John.
And Smart is not alone.
It is Tuesday afternoon at Phalombe Police Victim Support Unit (VSU). Fourteen-year-old Mike is sitting outside the institution, looking frail and tired.
He is in the company of his 13-year-old Friend Arthur who has just been rescued by Phalombe VSU officers, on their way to Mulumbu in Mozambique.
The two boys say they were on their way to work in maize fields.
But before they got to what they say seemed to be their promised land, they were intercepted by the law enforcers who have, in the last six years, embarked on an anti-child trafficking drive.
Mike said after staying out of school for three years and wallowing in abject poverty, he thought of trying his luck on the other side of the border.
He had heard of stories of the abuse and the violence that some of his peers suffered in Mozambique, but he encouraged himself, nonetheless, to try his luck.
“I was not doing well in school and decided to drop out. We are a poor family of eight children, so I thought of going out to work so that I can buy a bicycle and earn a better living,” Mike said.
Phalombe Police spokesperson Innocent Moses told us that they apprehended the middleman, just after he had crossed the border, and that he is now in police custody.
According to Moses, the suspect claimed to be their uncle and that they were on their way to see a relation in Mozambican.
“He carried them both on the bicycle. After probing him and using our victim identification skills, we knew the boys were in danger. We arrested the captor and brought the boys back here safely,” he explained.
Moses added that some unscrupulous Malawians are making a living out of the vice by acting as middlemen for Mozambican tycoons.
He says: “Due to high levels of poverty, trafficking children seems to be a lucrative business for a lot of jobless young Malawian men. They are paid an average of K4,000 per child, and if they are to make much money, it means finding more of these children, who are vulnerable and taken advantage of because of poverty.”
Mike said he met his abductor on the road at Misale, an area on the edge of Zomba and Phalombe districts.
Apparently, the man claimed to have a brother in Mozambique who was looking for energetic boys to work on his maize fields.
“When he sold the idea to me, I was willing to go because I was already thinking about the same since I was tired of spending nights on an empty stomach,” Mike said.
Not fully motivated by his rescue, Mike said he is worried about his future.
A third-born in a family of eight and the eldest boy, he told us he felt he has an obligation to fend for his siblings and his poor parents.
School is not an option for the Standard Three dropout who does not know how to read and write.
Mike’s friend, Arthur is 13. He said growing up with a poor step-father, we will identify as James, was very tough.
Wearing torn and grubby shorts and a shirt, with tears rolling down his cheeks, Arthur narrated how life had become unbearable for him in the village.
Having dropped out of Misale Primary School while in Standard Two three years ago, he hoped that he would be able to fend for his younger siblings through piecework.
Contrary to his expectations, life became harder and tougher.
No sooner had he thought of any other better way of survival than his trafficker approached him with an offer.
He was told that he and others would be working in maize and beans fields for nine months, after which he would be paid K70,000.
“He suggested that he would buy me a bicycle with about K50,000 and bring the remainder home to start a small business,” Arthur narrated.
Today, Arthur is reunited with his mother and step-father who claimed they had no idea about their son’s undertakings.
“He disappeared from us for about a week, but I blame all this on the bad company that he keeps. This is why he dropped out of school at a tender age and became unruly,” the father said.
But his wife held a contrary view. She said all her son was doing was striving for survival because of the everyday hardships that he faces in his homestead.
“We are poor and survive on alms; life has become depressing over the years. While I was never in support of my son going to Mozambique, I admit that it is the suffering that forced him to embark on such a risky journey,” she said.
But Group Village Headwoman Misale I, has no kind words for parents whose children are being trafficked into Mozambique on almost a daily basis.
She attributes the development to high illiteracy levels and the children in her area lack role models who can inspire them to work hard in school.
“The majority of my subjects have not gone far with their education, and it becomes hard to inspire their children. So even if they tell children not to be lured by money and stay in school, it does not make sense,” the local ruler says.
She adds that they have put in place strict by-laws aimed at punishing every parent who gives out or loses a child to Mozambique on assumption that most of the parents are part of the syndicate.
“I don’t want to believe that parents are innocent on these deals, because every parent who loves their children should be on the lookout for any schemes to take their children away, especially these times when trafficking has become very common.
“It is surprising that when such things happen, the parents don’t come forth to report abduction which is why I am treading carefully on the matter,” she explains.
The million dollar question, however, is how the child traffickers are able to go through all the border checkpoints without raising an alarm.
Phalombe Police spokesperson Moses admits that that most border points in Phalombe, for instance, are porous, and that the absence of immigration offices in such spots makes things worse.
“We know that there are so many children that have been whisked away without any trace. The police patrols alone are not enough. We have been having meetings and we hope that the Immigration department will soon set up offices at all border points. It will be a great milestone in combating child trafficking,” he said.
A 2017 report by the United States Department of State cited that the majority of the country’s Immigration officers lacked necessary skills in victim identification and expertise to provide necessary assistance to potential trafficking victims.
It also exposed the absence of cross-border forums between Malawi and its neighbouring countries for information sharing.
By the time we went to press, Immigration spokesperson, Joseph Chauwa, had not responded to our request for his comment on what the department is doing to fill the gaps and become vigilant in contributing to the fight against human trafficking.
On his part, Director General of Immigration and Citizenship Services, Masauko Medi, referred us back to Chauwa and cut the line when we insisted that we had failed to get a comment from the spokesperson.
“Who has told you about [the border issues]? Ask your counterpart, the [Public Relations Officer]. I am not the spokesperson for the department. I am the Controlling Officer,” Medi said.
Minister of Homeland Security Nicholas Dausi asked for more time before he could comment on the matter.
Since 2014, according to Moses, Phalombe Police has rescued 158 children with 24 cases of child trafficking and trafficking in person registered.
In the first eight months of 2018, 31 children have so far been rescued and safely repatriated.
Richard Muluzi, a programme officer at a non-governmental organisation River of Life in Phalombe District, has said there is need to raise awareness among parents and guardians and empower them to avoid being tricked into believing that strangers can give their wards a better life.
“These traffickers use several techniques the befriend Malawians to give them information about the targeted households. The government should invest in efforts to empower the underprivileged through programme like cash transfer and other income generating activities so that they are able to provide for their families,” he said.
While appreciating the progress in convicting suspects of child trafficking, Muluzi said there is need to further tighten the country’s legislation and maintain robust law enforcement.
Talking of law enforcement, Phalombe First-Grade Magistrate, Damson Banda, recently sentenced Jafali Sinoya and four others to between three and seven-and-half year jail terms after finding them guilty of trafficking in persons.
Another report by the United States Department of State, which was posted on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ website in 2018, underscored that Malawi does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
It was established that Malawi lags behind in providing protective services to victims of human trafficking, children inclusive, with few available rehabilitation and protective centres faced with chronic resource constraints.
“The government also launched a five-year anti-trafficking national action plan and continued to conduct awareness-raising activities. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas.
“The government did not always employ a victim-centred approach in the courtroom and continued to lack systematic procedures for the proactive identification of victims and their referral to care,” reads part of the report.
Corroborating the report, Moses complained of the perpetual resources constraints that Phalombe Police VSU is faced with and the challenges encountered when it comes to providing care and support to the rescued victims.
After being repatriated, the children are usually kept in the tiny VSU room made out of planks with just one bed and rugged beddings, as they wait to be taken to their respective homes or to testify in court.
“In as much as we celebrate the achievements of rescuing these children, there are many gaps in terms of care. We lack resources to buy them food and provide proper shelter. Officers sometimes have to dig into their pockets to help these children. So we call on well-wishers to help us in this area,” he pleaded.
Spokesperson in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Lucy Bandazi, said in an emailed response to our questionnaire last week that Malawi has made significant strides in combating trafficking.
She then touted the Anti-Trafficking Fund which was launched in 2015, and has been allocated K150 million in the budget that was recently passed.
“Malawi is making significant strides to eliminate trafficking through interventions such as prosecuting and convicting traffickers whilst at the same time identifying victims of trafficking… [The K150 million] will play a great role in financing issues [related] to addressing trafficking,” she said.
Bandazi added that the government is committed to providing adequate resources to existing rehabilitation and protective centres with plans in the pipeline to establish shelters in border districts of Mchinji, Phalombe, Karonga, Dedza and others where child trafficking is rampant.
Child trafficking in Malawi is in contravention of Section 79 of the Child Care, Justice and Protection Act and convicts can get up to life imprisonment.