The year is 2010 and the destination is Johannesburg in South Africa. A group of women monopolise the backseat of a commuter transborder omnibus covering themselves with thick blankets despite the warm weather and at every police checkpoint, they pile more blankets, jackets and jerseys over their legs.
Two hours later with Polokwane in sight, their thighs part to reveal the peeping faces of three young children smothered beneath the layers of wool, blankets and nylon – they last resurfaced five hours before for a toilet break along the Masvingo highway, long before the Beitbridge border.
The stop in Polokwane is used to feed the trio, buns and juice before stuffing them back under the seats and between their thighs – none of the passengers seem perturbed by this – rightly assuming that the children probably have no documents and being Zimbabwean, they empathise with how difficult it is to acquire such documents.
That is how easy it is to smuggle a child across the porous borders of Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries especially South Africa. As security concerns over the safety of children during and after the World Cup soccer showcase continue, efforts to stem the tide of child smuggling and trafficking in the region have been hampered as more and more women are suspected of providing cover for syndicates.
“The vulnerability of children is exacerbated by the fact that they are more likely to be in the company of a woman and not draw any attention or suspicion from officials because they are not considered to be likely suspects in such crimes,” says Zimbabwean Minister of Home Affairs, Kembo Mohadi. “There have not been any arrests or charges of trafficking against anyone in this country but we strongly suspect that women masquerading as relatives of underage children easily facilitate the trafficking of children.”
Mohadi admits that human trafficking has become a menace to law enforcement agencies in the region. “Human trafficking comes in many forms which makes it so hard to detect the victims because usually it is a crime that is committed using falsehoods and the victims are consenting to travel with their captors unaware of the fate that awaits them,” said Minister Mohadi. Mohadi added that Zimbabwe is in the process of domesticating the United Nations protocol on trafficking.
Posing as aunts, sisters or even mothers of underage children, some women have joined the trafficking trade, benefitting from the lax security at the borders where priorities shift towards crimes that are more overt. The Minister said it was therefore difficult to distinguish trafficking victims amid the flows at the borders.
The U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report of June 2009 criticised the Government of Zimbabwe for not “fully complying with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and not making significant efforts to do so.” A representative of the International Organisation for Migration’s legal department last year called on the government to expedite the enactment of a human trafficking law to “amend the existing laws that are scattered over a number of laws,” which make it difficult for legal officers to prosecute traffickers as different crime are dealt with under different laws.
As a major border post regionally, Beitbridge has been the sieve through which many a human smuggler and trafficker have slipped past the radar of law enforcement agents whilst several multi-national aid agencies fight a losing battle to curb human trafficking. Against the background of limited resources, stretched personnel and lack of specialised anti-trafficking training for law enforcement officials, the possibility of effectively deterring trafficking crimes slim.
Handling a huge volume of commercial traffic destined to countries such as Zambia, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, priorities of officials rarely focus on trafficking as critical concern, although the Home Affairs minister insists that “there are many other laws in Zimbabwe” that can ensure the prosecution, conviction and punishment of trafficking offenders.
Most Southern African countries do not prohibit all forms of trafficking in persons, though some existing statutes outlaw forced labour and numerous forms of sexual exploitation. In many instances, the penalties are not sufficiently stringent or commensurate with those prescribed for other grave crimes, making trafficking seem not only lucrative but relatively risk-free for those who engage in it whilst children increasingly become human cargo and easy prey for traffickers.
Delta Ndou is a journalist with the Sunday Mail in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service, produced as part of the Red Light 2010 Campaign to say no to human trafficking.
Do you think that women who are involved in child smuggling wo be given less punishment than men who do the same thing?