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Battling human trafficking in the post-COVID era

June 23, 2022
topic:Human Trafficking
tags:#Africa, #COVID-19, #human trafficking, #slavery
by:Cyril Zenda
With the COVID -19 pandemic receding and international travelling resuming, many impoverished African nations are battling a human trafficking scourge as their citizens fall prey to the lure of better economic opportunities abroad.

Several times a day, Zimbabwe’s state-owned television channel broadcasts clips of women sharing harrowing stories of abuse, including sexual, that they underwent in Kuwait, Oman and other Middle Eastern countries they were trafficked to.

Most of the women admit to being lured with promises of jaw-dropping monthly salaries of as much as $800 for menial jobs like being house maids, only to discover than they had been victims of human trafficking.

These stories are meant to alert citizens from falling prey to human trafficking syndicates that are on the prowl in several African countries. But poverty appears to be a force more powerful than fear.

Poverty Makes Victims Impervious To Warnings

Despite these stern warnings, Barbra - a 32 year-old Zimbabwean single mother of three - is not backing down on her decision to try her luck in the Middle East. Life at home has been so difficult that she remains unfazed by the chilling testimonies shared by those who made the journey to the Middle East, and is willing to take risk.

"I know the risks involved, but I have no choice," Barbara told FairPlanet, rejoicing about getting her passport in Harare after a years-long wait.

Her confidence is based on the reality that she has since resigned herself to: that even if she earns a fraction of the huge amounts that are promised by those who recruit people for these foreign jobs, it would still be much better than what she struggles to make at home. The monthly pay of $200-$300 that most of the victims end up getting upon landing in foreign countries is more than what an average peasant earns after a hard toil on the land for an entire year.

The unforgiving conditions back home have even propelled some former victims of human trafficking who have previously been rescued abroad to try their luck in different countries.

"I know the risks involved, but I have no choice."

'Conditions Very Much Akin To Slavery'

This is what is now worrying the Zimbabwean government, which estimates that hundreds of its citizens are effectively enslaved in several Middle Eastern countries. In addition to running education programmes to discourage citizens from being lured into slavery, it has since started physically stopping some of them from boarding planes at airports.

"We have had also very unfortunate situations where we have repatriated people who have been trafficked to other countries," Home Affairs permanent secretary, Aaron Nhepera, told journalists in Harare in March. "A typical example being Kuwait. They come back home but again they are re-trafficked to other countries," he added.

"We have a very worrying situation where someone who came from Kuwait is now in Oman. She is a case which now needs repatriation, but she went back on her own accord. So, it’s very worrying. The government is doing what it can to get rid of this scourge."

Nhepera, who chairs an inter-ministerial committee on trafficking of persons, said at the time they were in the process of trying to get 18 Zimbabwean women from Oman, where they were reportedly working and living in horrible conditions. 

"We have heard our young women being lured to Oman to work as domestic workers and the conditions under which they are working there is very much akin to slavery," Nhepera stated. "The government is concerned about that development, and as a committee we were deliberating on ways we can use to extricate our citizens from that situation, which is certainly deplorable and unacceptable."

Zambians Lured as well

Across the border, Zambia experiences the same plight. In February and March, the Zambian Immigration Department and police reported an upsurge in the number of citizens travelling to unusual destinations such as Oman, Kuwait, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries having been lured by promises of better pay.

"This is the third incident where Zambians wishing to take up jobs in the service industry abroad have been intercepted at the Airport in less than a week, with similar interceptions of four other Zambians headed for Turkey and Pakistan having been made on 5 and 4 February, 2022, respectively," Zambia Immigration Department spokesperson, Namati Nshika, stated in February.

He said that the Department had noted with concern a growing trend whereby unsuspecting Zambians are being lured to travel abroad by fellow Zambian citizens and foreigners but end up stranded and, in some cases, being exploited. 

With their plans to leave being increasingly frustrated by the authorities, many are taking round-about routes, usually first travelling to neighbouring countries - via South Africa in the case of Zimbabweans - from where they would get flights to their Middle East destinations. 

In March, Nshika and his Zambia Police Service counterpart, Rae Hamoonga, issued a join statement in which they revealed that two Zambians who had previously been barred from boarding flights to Oman at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka were intercepted a month later at the Kamuzu International Airport in Malawi trying to fly to the same destination.

"The Malawian authorities intercepted the potential victims of trafficking following a request from the Zambian Government to the Malawian Government through the diplomatic channels to stop one of the Zambian females from boarding," the duo said in the joint statement.

Malawians Targeted 

The statement showed that Malawi, another poor southern African country, is facing the same problem of renewed cases of human trafficking in the post COVID-19 period.

"Based on the bilateral cooperation and intelligence between authorities in Zambia and Malawi, the Zambians, together with three other Malawians, were intercepted by Malawian Immigration personnel at Kamuzu International Airport on 5 February, 2022 as they attempted to board a direct flight to Oman in a suspected case of human trafficking."

Nshika did not respond to questions from FairPlanet on the exact number of people that they had barred from leaving the country on suspicion that they were victims of human trafficking. 

There had been a lull in the cases of international human trafficking due to COVID-19 restrictions that brought international travel to a grinding halt. However, the pandemic made the economic situation of already impoverished African populations worse, and coupled with the fresh hardships triggered by the Russian-Ukraine conflict, desperation has worsened. 

Freedom Of Movement Violated?

The tactic used by most African governments battling human trafficking to physically bar their citizens from leaving the country has raised questions about freedom of movement, as some find it akin to holding citizens prisoners in their own country. 

Lloyd Kuveya, Assistant Director at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, told FairPlanet that when dealing with cases of human trafficking -including ones in which desperation makes those affected 'willing' victims - governments have to strike a delicate balancing act of rights.

"The right to human dignity is one of the most recognised and respected fundamental freedoms, Kuveya said in written answers to FairPlanet. "Dignity, freedom and equality are almost at the same level of recognition as they speak to the core of being human. The state has obligations to protect all human rights, which are inter-dependent, inter-connected and interrelated."

"Whenever there are competing rights one has to engage in a balancing of the two rights. In this instance it is human dignity versus freedom of movement. A right may be curtailed if it is reasonable and justifiable to do so in an open and democratic society that respects human rights," he wrote. "The measures used to curtail human rights must not be disproportionate and must be necessary to meet the objectives the government wants to achieve."

He added that his view was that states are obligated to protect the dignity of their citizens in conditions where they are being tortured or enslaved. 

"It is the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens whose rights are being violated, whether inside its own territory or within the borders of another country. In the dire situations of slavery in the Middle East, states are justifiably concerned about perceived organised crime involving a web of human trafficking and slavery. In such cases, states would be justified to intervene and stop the practice."

Kuveya, however, pointed out that states whose citizens are leaving home to be subjected to inhuman conditions of living and working in other countries must foster conditions that would allow their people to stay and thrive at home. 

"They must create conducive conditions for employment creation and for people to be able to sustain their livelihoods so that they do not take desperate measures for their survival."

More African Victims

Africa is estimated to account for about 23 percent of global human trafficking victims. Loren Landau, a Research Professor at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, told FairPlanet that the problem was deep rooted and that precise statistics are incredibly hard to come by.

"There are clearly long-standing patterns of labour exploitation and the exploitation of migrant labour in many places: Europe, the Middle East, the US, Asia. These have been well documented in everything from academic research to reports from human rights organisations," said Landau, who is also a Professor of Migration and Development at University of Oxford.

Image by Dominic Chavez/World Bank.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
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Migrant domestic workers in the Middle East are subjected to labour exploitation, forced labour and trafficking.
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