Updated: Jan 20, 2020
Published in the author's personal capacity.
Pictures depicting a room overcrowded with young Malawian girls in Kuwait showed the desperate circumstances of our young people, migrating out for search of economic opportunities, under their captors’ whims. It was a frantic conveyance of what they must endure to reap a single most definite route to a livelihood, which, unfortunately for them, only spelt sex slavery. The evidence of their plight was clear that, as is usually the case, their masters would not allow them to access the communication that would prematurely lead to their freedom. The numerous distress calls in 2016 through audio clips often went unheeded as these young women were living the excruciating realities of a dream life abroad, which offered not the promises it seemed to grant before they stepped on the plane to this beckoning pool of plenty.
The pictures sparked outrage among those concerned, stirring a debate on the authenticity of the videos and audios remitted by 28 women, and for which Emma Kaliya, Chairperson of the NGO-Gender Coordination Network and women’s rights activist, led a valiant fight. Ms. Kaliya and company highlighted the urgent need for government action. Media reports became awash with horrific stories detailing the manner in which the girls stayed trapped in Kuwait, with the unfortunate revelation of how Malawi’s immigration and police authorities were at the heart of the responsible trafficking rings. The voices of advocates were clearly getting weary of government’s inability to act in a timely fashion, and only grew loud enough that it eventually bulged.
Human trafficking is a present and increasing problem for poor countries. Fueled by economic motivations, the challenge is more complex than it appears. According to a 2008 US Department of State’s report on Major Forms of Trafficking in Persons, the hidden nature of trafficking in persons prevents a precise count of the number of victims around the world. However, available research indicates that, when trafficking within a country’s borders is included in the count, more people fall victim to labor forms of trafficking than sex trafficking. Although labor trafficking and sex trafficking are usually analyzed as separate trafficking-in-persons issues, victims of both forms of trafficking often share a common yearning: their trafficking ordeal started with a migration in search of economic opportunities. Migration experts posit that trafficking in persons and, indeed, the movement of victims, is a common trait in many trafficking crimes.
A comprehensive legal framework in Malawi?
Twelve years ago, in 2005, Malawi ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Since, the country has registered great milestones in combatting human trafficking. On paper. In 2005, Malawi, enacted the Trafficking in Persons Act of 2015, which makes possible the elimination of human trafficking through a comprehensive law, among other things.
It took Malawi almost 10 years to pass the law, taking several stakeholders who mounted a strong campaign lobbying for its enactment at a time when cases of trafficking were on the rise. The reports of Malawian women trafficked to the Netherlands and its European neighbours, at the time, helped to raise awareness of the matter and educated more Malawians about the reality of this form of modern day slavery. Interest in the topic grew stronger.
Based on the foregoing, there are several forms of trafficking cases in Malawi. Between 1999 and 2007, as a 2007 NCA report illustrates, there have been internal cases of trafficking associated with labor, sex and begging. Few trafficking cases have been registered in Malawi while even fewer are known regarding external trafficking, whose patterns have not been covered by many studies. The danger of external trafficking and the challenges it poses require a comprehensive legal framework. So far, what is emerging with the rescued women from Kuwait, however, is that our system is not urbane enough to handle victims of this crime.
All the case of trafficking of the 28 Malawi women in Kuwait has accomplished is magnifying the significant gaps in national responsiveness. In spite of a living law on trafficking, the system in our Home Affairs Ministry has hardly devised steps on preparedness in the event that Malawians are trafficked outside. Countries with adequate systems in place would normally address the 4Ps: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnerships. In addition, and more importantly, they ensure diligence to the 3Rs: Rescue, Rehabilitation and Reintegration, which guarantee smooth transitioning back to mainstream societies of the victims. As most experts in this field reckon, the crime of trafficking is a strain on any government. It is worse for poor countries. It is no surprise that Malawi has not accounted for the 3Rs in the national budget.
Legal experts continue pressing on that human trafficking will not be checked in Malawi if more punitive sentences meted out by courts on perpetrators of this crime and human rights violation are not effected. Despite these justifiable calls, I believe the casual scare of stiff penalties remains inadequate to curb human trafficking, as studies have shown.
The new law of 2015 provides some relief on the matter of the power of legal instruments. It provides that anyone who attempts to commit any act, including who helps or facilitates the commission of an act of trafficking, who provides guidance or recruits any other person to commit the offence, as someone’s employee or agent, or under someone’s instructions by another person, is just as guilty of trafficking in persons.
Law, Development and Fiscal Management of Trafficking.
Between March 2016 and March 2017, Malawi has managed to repatriate 73 girls home, from Kuwait. Details are scanty as to whether this number constitutes all our young women that fell in this vicious cycle of slave labour. The slow repatriation is an indicator of how haphazard our response mechanism remains in the face of such cases. Hopefully, with a new national coordinating committee set up, the Kuwait case may provide a case study from which many lessons will be learned. I still think that the Malawi Government could have negotiated better with the Kuwaiti Government to share the burden of fighting and redressing the vice, as it is particularly in the interest of the Kuwaiti Government to rid its country of such a bad reputation. Instead, our Embassy in Kuwait City singlehandedly assisted these young women with shelter, documentation for exit and their tickets.
I would also argue that several steps need to be taken. The authorities should look into how these women left Malawi and who facilitated their trip to Kuwait to deal with the assertion of a local trafficking ring. Furthermore, government needs to ensure a functional anti-trafficking fund as provided for by the new law. This fund shall be financed by the national budget, grants and donations, resources realized from confiscating, seizing or selling property connected with trafficking-in-persons, and money from any source approved by the Minister responsible for home affairs. The fund can finance the provision of care, assistance and support to trafficked persons by: putting up shelters, tracing their families and facilitating integration with the families, where possible. It can facilitate the work of the government’s missions abroad to repatriate trafficked persons back home, and perform any activities that the National Coordination Committee may recommend.
Beyond their emancipation from Kuwait, our young women should be given adequate care support through both counselling and reintegration. The service should cover the usually absent psychosocial support that should be a persistent characteristic in our public care system culture. It should be an imperative of the social redress mechanism for dealing with victims of trafficking that they be given psychotherapy and followed up until they reach stability. In the long term, the government needs to review its entire service provision since holistic service delivery will automatically accommodate all victims or survivors of the crime to receive services like health, education, and legal and economic empowerment.
But there are more systemic issues that are affecting the country in general. High levels of poverty are a push factor for many young people to seek greener pastures outside, and the lack of incentives or skills for their participation in their own economy perpetuates the negative impacts of out-migration. The responsibility of government needs to span across skills development to utilization of talent locally and at more equitable returns to effort to avoid the temptation for young people to voluntarily opt for choices that have weak labour protections and exploitative tendencies. All development partners, led by the government, need to provide enough sensitization in our communities and ensure that we make this law effective if indeed we are to curb this crime that shames us all.
As such, a migration and development nexus needs to be exploited within the frameworks of partnerships with entities such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and specialized NGOs on the rehabilitation and reintegration of trafficked persons. Organizations like IOM, hospitals and counselling agencies are mandated to assist with reintegration of victims. Advocates, on their own have a responsibility to assist the government in this regard, and guiding it to pay attention to the things that matter.
Trafficking-in-persons interventions are multifaceted and, left unchecked, will surely drill a hole in the public purse in ways that will affect our growth and development.