As poor parents push their children out of their homes into neighbouring Mozambique to work in farms, questions are being raised about whether Malawi’s laws cannot also be pushed to bite more than they do now, IMAM WALI writes.
For three years, Innocent, from Traditional Authority (TA) Kachere in Dedza, toiled in a farm owned by a Mozambican family with nothing to get for his work.
He tilled the fields, reared cattle and did household chores every day without a break and with little food. On lucky days, he could get two meals.
Innocent, now 13, says he was trafficked together with his friends and that his parents had consented that their 10-year-old should cross into the neighbouring country.
“While in Mozambique, we worked in the farms without being paid. The people who took us to Mozambique did that with our parents’ consent,” the teenage boy says.
Once in a while, he says, his parents travelled to his master’s place to get what were supposed to be his dues. They insisted he was better working there because, in their words, everything was being provided for him.
He adds that after growing tired of working like a slave in the foreign country, he escaped back home. His parents reluctantly welcomed him.
The teenage boy blames his parents for allegedly sending him to a place they knew he would be abused and tormented by strangers.
“The day I escaped, I did not have any money, but I decided that I was not staying. I told myself that time had come for me to return home and I did,” Innocent says.
He left for Mozambique while he was in Standard Three but has not been to school since his return a year ago because of several factors chief of them being lack of school materials.
“Life was tough. We were being treated like slaves. It was as if we were not human beings,” Innocent says.
He further claims that some Malawian girls and boys who trekked to work in Mozambican farms are now married in that country.
“Some of them are more like citizens of that country and it is unlikely that they will relocate back to Malawi. Some girls marry at as young as 12 years old,” he says.
He has since pleaded with authorities to intervene in their cases by rescuing the victims of trafficking who are still stuck in Mozambique.
According to Innocent, there are still Malawian children in Mozambique, especially villages closer to the border with Malawi, who are in desperate need of support to return home.
“They are more like stranded. It would be easier for them if government intervened. Not all of them can escape like I did,” he says.
The United States Department of State says the Government of Malawi does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.
It adds that the government increased efforts to prevent trafficking.
The department still indicates there are several areas in which Malawi needs to improve if it is to attain a good rating on trafficking.
And to survivors of human trafficking such as Innocent, until the problem is eliminated, children, especially girls, will continue being at the mercy of the traffickers and their parents who send them to various places to work for their parents.
Dedza Border Post Immigration spokesperson Tambula Nyasulu said in an interview that the department is waiting for guidance from the district council before the may intervene in trafficking cases.
“We are more than ready to rescue the victims by engaging our Mozambican counterparts. What remains is for the council to engage officials in that country so that the exercise can take place,” Nyasulu said.
TA Kachere in whose area of jurisdiction Innocent comes from describes the rise in cases of human trafficking involving the border district as worrisome.
The chief says the problem is further affecting the education of children in the district.
“Several children cross into Mozambique to work in farms there. It is sad that the stories are not being amplified. The problem can be addressed by empowering families so that they are able to take care of their children because most of them cross into Mozambique because of poverty in their homes,” he says.
He indicates that in the past, seekers of labourers to work in the farms used to go through traditional leaders.
The chiefs would then send messages across their areas informing their subjects about the “opportunities”.
“Those days, only adults were allowed to go to Mozambique to work in the fields. But that has changed over the years. The traffickers are looking for cheap labour and, therefore, opt for children,” Kachere says.
He admits that some children are trafficked into Mozambique with the consent of their parents whom he says need a lot of sensitisation so that they know the negative implications of their decisions.
Dedza District Social Welfare Officer Hellen Simwaka says her office is aware of cases of human trafficking in the district and that the office assists between one and four victims every month.
“The victims are often people from areas closer to Mozambique such as Njonja and Lobi,” Simwaka says.
Minister of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, Patricia Kaliati, also admits the rise in cases of human trafficking but insists social protection officers should ensure the challenge in border areas stops.
The Ministry of Homeland Security recently launched a 90-day national campaign against trafficking in persons.
Minister responsible Jean Sendeza said Malawi is committed to ending acts of human trafficking and that that is why the country enacted a trafficking in persons law to apply in busting trafficking rings.
“Human trafficking is often referred to as modern-day slavery and Malawi is among those countries where trafficking for forced labour is prevalent,” Sendeza said.
She added that some cases that are seen as normal, like the sending of children to work in farms, entail trafficking and should be diligently fought.
“It is a challenge because some of the people who perpetrate the acts are those who were supposed to be protecting the people who get trafficked, particularly children,” the minister said.
Police reports indicate that some traffickers coerce both children and adults into neighbouring countries promising good jobs only to dump them in estates where they have to work for hours on end without being properly remunerated.
For Innocent, what matters now is that he is back home from the toil across the border despite that he is also worried that he remains out of school due to his parents’ poverty.