Zambia has become a hub for human trafficking in southern Africa, and authorities are beginning to recognize and address it.
Orphaned at the age of nine, Miselo fell into prostitution at 14, plying her trade in bars and clubs in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, sometimes waking up beaten, lost and dumped on the street. Now 18, she has an 18-month old daughter to care for. Hardly a charmed life – but it could have been much worse.
Last year, Miselo met a truck driver at a bar where she was working and they struck up a friendship that seemed truer than the usual quick-money relationships she was used to. "He was nice to me and would give me extra money and buy me drinks", Miselo said, clutching her baby in her arms. "One day he asked me if I wanted to have a nice job in South Africa and quit what I was doing. He said I could work in a restaurant or a shop and make lots of money and have a good life. Of course I said yes", she added, shaking her head at the memory.
Without a passport, travel documents or any form of identification, Miselo was bundled into a truck and driven south to the Zimbabwe border. While the driver – her 'friend' from the bar - waited for clearance, Miselo wandered to a café to buy some food. "I saw some friends I knew from Lusaka and they said they knew the man I was with and they told me he was bad", Miselo recalled. "They said he takes girls to South Africa and they never come back, or if they do they are very sick and then they come back to die".
Miselo hid in the café and, with help from her street-wise friends, eventually made her way back to Lusaka, escaping from a human trafficker who might have sold her into a grinding life of forced labour, domestic servitude, or, most likely, straight back into prostitution. "I know I was lucky", Miselo said. "I don't work in the bars anymore and I never will again. I want to go back to school for a better life".
Human trafficking is not a new problem in southern Africa, but governments like Zambia have only recently been willing to tackle the issue head on. With HIV/AIDS, food shortages, education and even military spending gobbling up vast amounts of the region's resources, little is left over to address the growing phenomenon of human trafficking, a process in which mostly older men recruit, transport and exploit mostly young, female victims by deception, coercion or force.
"Human trafficking is already a huge problem in the region and is second only to drugs as a profit-making business for the criminal underworld", said Olivia Kafukanya of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) in Zambia. "After a few high-profile cases the [Zambian] government is finally taking the problem seriously, though it is hard to catch anyone because the victims are almost always too scared to talk", she added.
The tipping point that forced government action came in 2005 when a Congolese woman was caught trying to smuggle 14 children through Zambia into South Africa. The case received huge media attention when the Zambian government failed to prosecute the woman because the country had no specific law against the crime. "It was a real wake-up call", said American lawyer Jill Thompson, recently drafted in by the Zambian government to help develop a national framework to address human trafficking. "They are very keen to control this problem and to find legislation and there is a great groundswell of support from the government, but they don't have the money to do much about it", she added.
The IOM describes Zambia as a 'hub' for human traffickers operating in southern Africa. The country is in the geographic centre of the region and is seen as a major battleground in the fight to disrupt the illegal movement of people, usually from countries like Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to South Africa and beyond.
Recent cases uncovered by Zambian authorities include that of two Chinese girls being flown from Lusaka to Johannesburg on forged passports. The girls were recently repatriated to China, but the Chinese man accompanying them escaped. In another case, an Italian was caught trying to take eight Zambian girls to Australia, promising them lucrative careers as high-paid 'models'.
"Those cases are probably just the tip of the iceberg", said Thompson. "We really don't know how bad the problem is in Zambia or across southern Africa, but there is definitely a constant stream of stories, so we know the traffickers are out there". After the case of the 14 Congolese children, Zambia hastily enacted an anti-trafficking law, with a minimum penalty of 20 years in prison for a prosecuted offender and a life term if the case involved defilement of a minor. The penalties are harsh, but the government has yet to throw the book at a single trafficker.
"I have been travelling throughout Zambia holding workshops and raising awareness about human trafficking and some prosecutors don't know what the laws are", Thompson said. "The government is trying to write new laws that will address all the issues – victims rights, compensation, temporary citizenship, how to care for people. They need more of a framework, as do all countries in southern Africa. If the police stop 10 kids at the border, what are they going to do with them?"
For now, the IOM and the government are focussing on awareness. The IOM is running a series of radio spots – both in Zambia and Mozambique – warning young men and women not to give up their passports for promises of employment that seem too good to be true.
Miselo has also thrown herself into the fight against the traffickers, heading back to the bars where she once worked to warn others of the dangers of free drinks and whispered promises. "If I could help save one girl from being sent away, it would be worth it", she said.
Zambia is aiming to have a national policy in place by the end of the year.
"The problem will be implementing the new laws, prosecuting offenders and dealing with the victims", Thompson said. "They need training and capacity building...It's a long road ahead".
Adapted from: "ZAMBIA: Govt moves in to check human trafficking." IRIN News. 31 October 2006.
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