Monday, February 5, 2007
International child traffickers may be using Mozambique's weak adoption laws to target orphaned children, to the growing concern of the government, said a senior official from the Ministry of the Interior.
The use of the adoption process to gain access to disadvantaged children is the latest form of child trafficking to hit the Southern African country, according to Lurdes Mabunda, head of the ministry's Department of Women and Children.
"Adoption cases have arisen over the past couple of years, in which people applied to adopt a child, went through the procedures, and then abused the child placed in their care. We view these as instances of child trafficking, an activity we are trying to eradicate in Mozambique," she said.
Mozambique's 19.8 million people are desperately poor: 40 percent live on less than one US$1 a day, and most are still recovering from a 16-year civil war that ended in 1992. According to UNICEF there are 1.6 million orphans, 380 thousand of whom have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.
Cases involving orphan adoptions by foreign nationals living abroad have prompted the government to reconsider whether it should still allow international adoptions.
Mabunda described how two orphans had been adopted by foreigners and taken to live in the USA, where they were abused before being abandoned and found living as street children. Another case involving an adopted girl, who had disappeared after being taken to live in Germany, was also under investigation.
Most recently, the motives for adoption by a faith-based organisation from Spain were being investigated after a number of its applications were stopped due to suspicious behaviour.
CHILDREN LET DOWN BY THE LAW
The instances of abuse have caused the government to review its current international adoption legislation. "We do not have the capacity to monitor the welfare of Mozambican children who have been adopted by foreign nationals living outside of the country, and this is a cause for concern," Mabunda said.
"As a result, some adoption centres are expressing a preference for national adoptions only, so we have to make a decision on whether to allow international adoptions to continue."
Although human trafficking in Southern Africa is not as prevalent as it is in other parts of the continent, where the practice has been widespread and is mainly linked to domestic slavery and the recruitment of children for military activities, it is believed to be increasing, especially in Mozambique.
A 2003 study on trafficking in the region by the International Organisation on Migration (IOM) estimated that 1,000 Mozambican woman and children were being trafficked to South Africa every year for sexual exploitation.
Amnesty International stated in a 2005 report that trafficking in the former Portuguese colony was also thought to be linked to the extraction of human organs for ritual and witchcraft purposes, with allegations that the practice was taking place in its Nampula and Niassa provinces.
HEAVY LOCAL TRAFFIC
Mabunda maintained that although cases of cross-border human trafficking received most attention in the media, trafficking by local crime syndicates was by far the most prominent form of the crime. The main reason for the practice was the extreme poverty besetting most people, and a culture that allowed girls to be married off at an extremely young age.
"Trafficking is often not seen as a huge problem in Mozambique because it's a general practice for our people to look for a better way of life. So there is a tendency to let children go with people who promise them a job - parents either think they are doing the right thing, or they are under too much strain to look after their children, so they let them go," she said.
"Young girls are also allowed to marry at an early age if the lobola [or 'bride price', a traditional practice in which the bride's father receives payment from the prospective husband for raising her] is paid. This is also a form of trafficking, as often they have no say in the matter. Parents only become worried once communication with their child stops, but often it is too late by then."
'Tata papa, tata mama: Child Trafficking in Mozambique', a report to be published later this year by the international NGO, Save the Children, found significant evidence of girls being trafficked by individuals and criminal syndicates for sexual exploitation, with most of the victims coming from rural areas. It also showed that there were major gaps in criminal justice procedures between police, the courts, judgements and sentencing, making it difficult to tackle the problem and quantify exactly how prevalent the practice is.
Mozambican law makes no provision for prosecuting alleged human traffickers; consequently, no suspected trafficker has ever been tried for the crime, even though the practice is illegal under international law.
Nevertheless, suspected human traffickers have been prosecuted by the State and the Mozambican NGO, Rede Came, under laws relating to kidnapping, the corruption of minors and hijacking, but these carry much milder penalties than violations of trafficking laws in other countries.
Despite loopholes and delays in updating the legislation, Mabunda insisted that progress was being made, albeit at a slow pace, on a draft bill containing provisions for the prosecution of alleged traffickers, which was presently before parliament.
"Trafficking is linked to large criminal syndicates, and often those involved in the process don't know the other traffickers who operate at the various stages," said Rede Came's Octavia Moniedie, adding that in cross-border trafficking into South Africa, "passports and transport are organised to ensure the kids are brought across borders legitimately. Very few children are ever found or returned to their families - they mostly just disappear."
The escalating problem had moved the government to engage with local communities who had been targeted by the traffickers. "Initially we asked the police to talk with them, but it had little effect, so we have changed our strategy and brought community leaders in to explain how to talk to their communities about the subject," Mabunda said. "They have talked to their people, and we feel children are much less likely to talk to strangers and believe the promises they make to them about work and a better life for their child."
UNICEF is also working with the authorities to set up 18 centres in police stations in 11 provinces by 2009, to provide support and shelter for victims of child trafficking. "The project is for three years, and is about helping the victims and the police to build capacity, as well revising the police training programme to include a curriculum that deals with child abuse and trafficking," said UNICEF child Protection Officer Clarice da Silva e Paula.
Centro de Acolhimento a Magurza (Relocation Centre), the first home for children subjected to child trafficking, where they can receive treatment and wait while the authorities try to locate their families, opened last July in Moamba, about 60km from the Ressano Garcia/Komatiepoort border post with South Africa.
Since it opened, 24 children between the ages of 2 and 17 have passed through its doors. Alberto Francisco Manhique, director of the centre, interviewed them about their experiences. Many reported being brought to Maputo, the capital, by their parents, who told them they were going to a destination where they would have a better life.
"The majority of the kids here were either bound for being trafficking or in the process of being trafficked," said Manhique. "The first thing we do is try to locate the family and get their story to assess whether the child's version of the events is true or not, and if the conditions are not good for the child at home we take them back in and try to find them another home."