Trafficked Mozambican children exploited in Zim…

Mary Mundeya

Its 9.30pm on a chilly March night, António Munguambe* (10) cuts a lonely figure as he lies still on a secluded Harare CBD pavement.

His little feet are aching from the day’s toil, which began at 6am – but that is the least of his worries. His heart is heavy because he has failed to meet the day’s target. He knows his boss will be seething with anger.

“I’m scared of going home tonight. I will be yelled at and not given anything to eat,” he says, in a shacky voice as tears roll down his cheeks.

Moments later, three boys that are slightly older than António approach. They speak to him momentarily in Portuguese before beginning their 35-minute walk to where they stay – Mbare. This is one of Zimbabwe’s oldest high-density suburbs otherwise known as the hub of the Southern African country’s informal economy.

A lot of merchandise is sold here; from fresh vegetables, second hand clothes, building materials, cheap meals and all sorts of things. Practically everything is found in this bustling and crowded high density suburb, which is also the transport hub for long distances buses. Whichever rural area or town you are coming from, if you are visting Harare, the end destination of the bus is likely to be Mbare.

Where there are people in large numbers, you are also likely to find criminals. Mbare is no different. From petty thieves such as pick-pockets to hardened criminals such as drug dealers – they are all here.

Mbare is also a smuggling haven. Illicit beer and drugs smuggled into the country often find themselves here before being distributed countrywide. Second-hand clothing bales, brought in mostly from Mozambique are also found in Mbare in large numbers.

But that is not all.

In recent times, children like António have been trafficked from Mozambique to provide cheap labor an investigation by She Corresponds Africa with support from the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) Investigative Journalism Fund on transnational crimes has established.

“In June last year, I and four other children from Sofala came with Uncle Amando who was friends with my father before he died. We were told that there is a lot of money here and all I wanted was to send my mother most of it, but it’s been hard,’’ said António*.

Another Mozambican child has a similar story.

“My grandmother was told that, me coming to work here, was a guaranteed way out of poverty for the family. She agreed that I come,’’ said 13-year-old Joachim Tembe* originally from Carbo Delgardo.

His parents died in in the ongoing conflict in Carbo Delgardo. Too young and confused to understand the fate that had befallen his parents, Joachim and his grandmother migrated far away from home to Maringué District (where most his grandmothers maiden relatives are) to start a new life.

For close to six years, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province, has been witnessing a deadly insurrection that has led to the death of more than 6 500 people and the displacement of nearly one million others. Militants have also ravaged infrastructure, recruited child soldiers, and committed sexual and gender-based violence.

The Mozambican government has regained control over much of the region since SADC ground and naval forces arrived in the country in 2021 as part of a combined regional force to quell insurgents who have caused much suffering. Rwandese forces were the first to help the Mozambican government.

Joachim and his friends may have fled the war, but life has not been a bed of roses in Zimbabwe.

The huge sums of money they were promised on arrival in Harare, are nowhere to be found. Instead, they have been met with inhuman living conditions and a long wait for prospective employers, who pay them slave wages.

“When we got here, I was surprised to find out that 10 of us were going to share a single room, not saying things are better in Maringué but the room here was too small,’’ said Joachim*.

“After two days I was introduced to Tete maSibanda whom I started selling boiled eggs for. I was promised US$4 per week but for the whole year I worked for her, I was only given US$20. When I asked her about it, she said the remainder of my pay had been given to Domingos who brought me here. I ran away and started selling my own cigarettes, sweets and airtime. It doesn’t give me much but it’s better than working the whole year for nothing like I did.”

Humanium, an international child sponsorship NGO dedicated to stopping violations of children’s rights throughout the world states that trafficking is prominent in Mozambique.  UNESCO has found many cases of trafficking of children in the country.

The Borgen Project classifies human trafficking as the movement of victims across borders for forced labor–particularly child labor. It further notes that traffickers lure children from rural areas with promises of education and employment enticing families to send children away with hope in the opportunities available in urban life or other countries.

Globally, an estimated 50 million children are on the move, affected by war, conflict, disasters and poverty (UNICEF, 2016). These children move both within and between countries, with or without their parents, voluntarily or involuntarily. When the migration is illegal it can increase the risk of multiple forms of abuse, and have a negative impact on the child’s welfare, safety and healthcare. Moreover, it places children on the move at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and human traffickers. Human trafficking is a severe and systematic form of abuse, with people being transported from one location to the next by force or fraud to provide labour or commercial sex.

The majority of children trafficked from Mozambique end up at South African farms and mines, where victims often work for months without pay under coercive conditions.

However, Zimbabwe is relatively becoming a lucrative market, thanks to its growing informal economy and porous borders.

How traffickers evade law enforcement

Investigations revealed that the Mount Selinda area located in Chipinge in the eastern region bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique has illegal crossing points, including one known as Zona, that are used to smuggle children from Mozambique into Zimbabwe.

When we visited the area, a US$2 offered as bribe to soldiers that patrol the area was enough to facilitate our entry into Mozambique, a practice so common that it happens in broad day light.

Brighton Nyanise, Chipinge ward 14 Councilor, confirmed the use of illegal entry points in the Mt Selinda area. He said the entry points are not only used by child traffickers from Mozambique, but other criminals such as smugglers of illicit alcohol and second-hand clothes bales. Cattle rustlers from both Mozambique and Zimbabwe also use the entry points.

“For some time, criminal elements have been taking advantage of the cross-border ecosystem that exist here since there are no physical boundaries. Families with relatives who belong of either side visit each other without any need for travel documents which is now making it easy for criminals who are evading Espungabera  border whilst trafficking undocumented children, smuggling illicit alcohol or cattle rustling,” Nyanise said. 

Chief Mapungwana, who oversees a huge part of the area that borders Zimbabwe and Mozambique lamented how the area under his jurisdiction is being used for criminal activities such as child trafficking.

“A lot of children in the company of one or two adults pass through these dusty paths from Mozambique. The frequency usually escalates when something bad happens that side like a cyclone or the days when fighting was rife in Carbo Delagado,’’ he said.

“As a leader I’m not happy with how my area has become a route for such illegal activities and it is my hope that more security that is not susceptible to corrupt tendencies be deployed here so that sanity can prevail.’’

The process of acquiring a child laborer

A verification visit to Mbare by She Corresponds Africa revealed how acquiring a trafficked Mozambican child laborer is as easy as buying fresh fruits from a vegetable market.

On 25 April, this reporter went to ever busy Mbare bus terminus posing as a local resident, who was looking for a child laborer to sell eggs for her. She was told to come back the following morning and make a choice. Three different individuals, who include a Mozambican national called Obert Joaquim, were to bring the children.

To the reporter’s surprise, on 26 April, three child laborers between the ages of 12 and 14, were waiting to meet their potential employer. None of the adults who came with them requested to see any identification documents from this reporter. All they were concerned about was how much the children were going to earn and whether or not they were going to be given accommodation.

The child laborers had very little say in the negotiations except assuring this reporter of how hardworking and honest they were. The reporter offered US$5 per week including two meals and accommodation to each of the children. They agreed and were looking forward to starting work the following morning.

The adults who brought the children charged this reporter a US$25 facilitation fee and demanded that the children’s salaries be handed to them as they were better placed to keep the money on their behalf.

Popular boxer and Mbare resident Alfonso Zvenyika corroborated our findings. He said most people in the area are resorting to hiring Mozambican child laborers whose charges are way below what locals can take.

“Most people here rely on vending, and one of the best ways they have been cutting costs is through hiring Mozambican kids who are willing to work for close to nothing. The life those kids are living is appalling, but hey, what can they do when things are hard like this,” he said.

Efforts to combat child trafficking

While the Mozambican government has enacted policies such as the Prohibition of Child Trafficking in the most recent Penal Code that country enacted in June 2020 to push back against the predatory nature of human trafficking, the country has consistently struggled to adapt the infrastructure necessary to enforce these policies. The lack of manpower in the justice system limits its effectiveness and leaves a gap in Mozambique’s ability to prevent further trafficking.

The Bourgen project says since 2020 Mozambique has witnessed an improvement in the prosecution of trafficking crimes and increased training for designated front-line workers to recognize and work on such cases. National awareness campaigns continue to bring this issue to light, exposing the presence of trafficking rings and highlighting the government’s goals to implement better policy.

In Zimbabwe a lot of efforts have been put in place to curb the country from being a source of human trafficking yet less mechanisms have been forwarded to curtail it from being a transit and destination of the vice.

Efforts to get a comment from Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage minister Kazembe Kazembe were futile as he did not respond to phone calls and WhatsApp messages.

The Zimbabwe Trafficking in Persons National Plan of Action (NAPLAC) 2019 – 2021 notes that out of the 74 cases that were reported between June 2016 and December 2018, six convictions, nine acquittals and three warrants were recorded whilst 29 cases were dismissed for non location of witnesses, 10 are pending trial whilst 17 are still under investigations.

The document further notes that in an effort to combat trafficking of persons (TIP) Zimbabwe ratified the Convention on Transnational Organised Crime (TOC) on the 12th of December 2007. Zimbabwe acceded to one of the protocols to the TOC, the Protocol to prevent, punish and supress trafficking in persons especially women and children popularly known as the Palermo Protocol on the 13th of December 2013. The government went on to domesticate the Palermo Protocol through the enactment of the Trafficking in Persons Act (TIP Act) Chapter 9:25) in June 2014. The TIP Act provided for the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee comprising of representatives from key line government ministries and departments to coordinate the national response to human trafficking. The committee has been established and is known as the Anti-Trafficking Inter-Ministerial Committee (ATIMC) and is chaired by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage.

As part of capacity building for law enforcement officials, the Zimbabwe Republic Police has also began including trafficking of persons in their training modules.

But child trafficking of vulnerable children continues unabetted.

* Not real names.

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