Africa, Development & Aid, Global Governance, Globalisation, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

RIGHTS-SOUTHERN AFRICA: Human Trafficking Stretches Across the Region

Moyiga Nduru

BENONI, South Africa, Jun 23 2004 (IPS) - Young South African women are being given false job offers to lure them into prostitution in Macau, a former Portuguese colony now under Chinese control, says the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

IOM official Jonathan Martens told a three-day conference which opened in Benoni, near South Africa’s main commercial city of Johannesburg, this week (Jun. 22) that the women are promised employment, luxury accommodation, and a payment of between 10,000 and 20,000 dollars. Their passports are confiscated once they arrive in Macau.

The meeting, entitled ‘Next Steps to Path Breaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking in South Africa’, has attracted over 100 participants.

Martens said South African traffickers earn around 500 dollars for every woman recruited for prostitution in Macau, which has been labeled the “Las Vegas of Asia” for its numerous casinos and nightclubs. Drugs play a “very big role” in recruitment, he added.

A 23-year-old woman identified as Nicola reported to the IOM that she had met nine other black, white and mixed race South Africans aged 18 to 21 in Macau, who were forcibly prostituted in the former colony.

Addressing delegates in Benoni, Linda Smith – founder of the War Against Trafficking Alliance – described the ways in which the trafficking of women had become a global phenomenon. “We found girls from South Africa working in brothels in the Netherlands. We also found girls from Thailand in South Africa. The traffickers don’t care. What they care about is money.”

The International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) estimates that traffickers earn as much as 19 billion dollars annually.

According to the United Nations, up to 900,000 human beings are trafficked across international borders every year. If the number of people who are trafficked within borders is taken into account, this figure rises to between two and four million.

Women from rural China, many of them poorly-educated, are often brought to South Africa, said Martens. The women are flown to Johannesburg, and then taken to Swaziland, Lesotho or Mozambique. They then cross the border back into South Africa – all this in a bid to circumvent airport immigration controls.

Eastern European women take a similar route into South Africa. They are trafficked by members of the Russian mafia and crime syndicates from Bulgaria, which own clubs in South Africa. In contrast to the Chinese recruits, women from Eastern Europe tend to be highly educated. However, they are also poor and jobless noted Martens.

Upon arrival, the women are informed that they must pay off a debt of between 12,000 and 15,000 dollars. Threats of physical violence, especially by Bulgarian traffickers, are frequently translated into action against those who disobey their captors.

According to the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, as many as 500 organised crime groups operate in South Africa. These include Nigerian gangs who operate mainly in Malawi, Zambia and South Africa.

Such gangs also traffic Mozambican women to South Africa, where they are sold as “wives” to people who work on the mines near Johannesburg. Effectively, the women become sex slaves for those who buy them, also providing unpaid domestic labour, says the IOM.

In addition, children find themselves caught up in the trade. Only a fortunate few are given refuge in safe houses in South Africa.

“The children don’t trust anybody: they are traumatized (and) they hardly talk about their personal problems, says Dumisani Mlambo of Amazing Grace, a children’s home in Malelane, a small South African town near the border with Swaziland and Mozambique.

It is only “after a year or two” that they finally open up, adds Mlambo – who also works as a child trafficking officer. Amazing Grace takes care of 50 children: 15 from Mozambique, three from Swaziland and the rest from South Africa.

“Some jump the border. Some are smuggled by human traffickers,” he told IPS Tuesday, Jun. 22.

“The traffickers lure the children through their parents, with the promise of education and greener pastures in South Africa. Once they cross the border, which they do illegally of course, things change,” Mlambo noted.

Children who are not prostituted may also end up as cheap labour on farms, or in the construction industry. According to Mlambo, many of the children in this predicament also come from broken homes.

“Once they are picked up by the police, they are handed over to social workers who bring them to safe homes like ours,” he told IPS. “Unfortunately it’s not easy for us to trace their parents or guardians in Mozambique and Swaziland.”

Thabisile Msezane runs a home called Sithabile Child and Youth Centre, which caters for over 100 children in Benoni. Nearly a quarter of the home’s residents are from neighbouring countries.

“The youngest we have is three months old. Her mother is a 16-year-old girl with a Zimbabwean accent. She was brought to us when she was seven months pregnant,” Msezane said in an interview with IPS.

Children’s rights groups like the Cape Town-based Molo Songolo estimate that 28,000 children engage in prostitution in South Africa – and that 25 percent of prostitutes in Cape Town are children. About 5,000 young boys and girls are said to cater for foreign tourists in the city alone.

A short video clip shown to participants of the Benoni conference exposed the dangers of child prostitution in Cape Town.

In the video a 13-year-old girl says one of her clients is a 73-year-old man. Asked whether she is afraid of contracting HIV, a second 14-year-old girl simply shrugs her shoulders and says: “It’s better to die, because there is nothing to live for.”

Some of the participants didn’t realise the magnitude of trafficking in Southern Africa until they attended the conference.

“From what I’ve heard here and watched in the video, I’m shocked,” Zodidi Tshotshu of Family and Victim Empowerment, a non-governmental organisation, told IPS.

“We need a global approach. We can’t do it alone. We need the support of every country in order to fight the traffickers.”

Thoko Majokweni, head of the Sexual Offence Unit at South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority, told the conference that government was working on laws that would combat human trafficking.

“Right now our laws are fragmented. We hope the Sexual Offences Amendment Bill, which criminalises trafficking for sexual purposes, would help in the fight against trafficking,” she said.

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