Exploitation and abuse of human trafficking victims, mainly taken from Mozambique to South Africa, has seen a surge in media headlines but experts warn this is just "the tip of the iceberg."
There have been 52 suspected cases of trafficking involving young women and children since the beginning of the year, according to Save the Children-United Kingdom (SC-UK) Mozambique. The latest involved the sexual enslavement of three Mozambican children, aged between 14 and 16, at a brothel in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria.
According to Chris McIvor, country director for SC-UK in Mozambique, the increased number of cases reported points to a deeper and more pervasive problem throughout Southern Africa.
"Like any illegal practice which brings financial profits to people who carry out such activities, it is highly likely that there are many more cases that remain unreported,” McIvor told IRIN. “Thousands of children leave Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho every year to cross the border to South Africa without documentation.”
Wiesje Zikkenheiner, associate expert at the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Southern Africa, agreed the problem was underreported: “human trafficking is a problem in the whole Southern Africa region though South Africa is the regional magnet for most countries.”
Although the practice is believed to be growing, accurate statistics on the magnitude of the problem remain elusiver. A 2003 study on trafficking in the region by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimated that 1,000 Mozambican woman and children were being trafficked to South Africa every year, mainly for sexual exploitation.
The issue is broader than the orthodox image of trafficking, where individuals are transported across a border against their will. The Mozambican girls found in Pretoria, now reunited with their families in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, had been lured across the border by the promise of work and an education.
“People are tempted to find what they need and become susceptible to the promises that people make,” said Mandy Shongwe, manager of Amazing Grace, a children’s home in Malelane, South Africa, near the Mozambican border.
“The voluntary nature of the movement of children across borders should not dilute the concern we must feel about what happens to them in other countries. They may not be trafficked in the classical sense of the term, but they have numerous rights infringed and merit our protection," McIvor said.
Attraction of a better life
Shongwe has helped hundreds of children who passed through his home on their way back to Mozambique. “The main reason behind what is going on is there is more poverty in Mozambique so people are attracted to South Africa to find a better life,” he said.
According to McIvor the economic and social factors that create the vulnerability continues to worsen in many countries in the region. “Higher levels of unemployment, young people looking for better lives, demands in some countries for illegal, cheap labour create the conditions that are ripe for trafficking,” he explained.
Zikkenheiner said recent years had seen the increased involvement of criminal organisations in human trafficking because of the extremely high profits and relatively low risks involved.
“Trafficking in persons is dynamic, adaptable, opportunistic and - takes advantage of conflicts, humanitarian disasters, and vulnerability of people,” Zikkenheiner said. Lack of awareness and “the clandestine nature make it difficult to investigate trafficking cases and identify all role-players”.
As traffickers become more adept at concealing their activities, “we must all be worried that what we have seen in recent months is only the tip of the iceberg", McIvor warned.
“The traffickers we have spoken to say they are taking advantage of the lack of legislation, a hole in the legal system; they know they will be charged with only part of what they are doing if they get caught, like sexual harassment or kidnapping,” Shongwe said.
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.
“Currently, even where trafficking is criminalised, cases are not investigated or investigations do not result in convictions,” Zikkenheiner said, adding that if legislation is not yet in place other existing legislation to prosecute the traffickers should be considered. “Most penal codes include crimes such as rape, abduction and fraud, and these crimes are often committed in trafficking cases.”
The Mozambican Council of Ministers approved a specific law against human trafficking and a proposed Children’s Act in 2007, but both are still pending parliament's approval.
A SC statement called for the passage of the proposed legislation, more cooperation between countries in Southern Africa, increased awareness on the dangers of trafficking and to ensure that survivors had access to proper care.
“The fight against trafficking calls for broad, multi-agency and cooperative criminal justice responses, both nationally, regionally and internationally. As a start, collecting, exchanging and analysing information on organized criminal networks is a fruitful approach to addressing trafficking in persons, especially with information on routes used by traffickers,” Zikkenheiner said.