By Mary Kashumba
When a relative’s friend promised her a well-paying job in South Africa, Susan Mtisi (not her real name), a 26-year-old high school dropout, saw nothing else but the glimmer of a flashy life ahead of her. The dream of a her own paycheque and the potential to better her life blinded her so much that she believed the promise of a job in the famed City of Gold without thinking twice about potential risks and the possibility of deception.
It did not occur to Mtisi that she was walking straight into a trap that has seen many of her compatriots falling prey to an intricate human trafficking web preying on gullible job-seekers desperate for an avenue out of poverty.
“I had been promised a job in South Africa by a relative’s friend who had indicated to my uncle that she had contacts and relatives who had a job ready for me,” Susan said.
Without a passport, she boarded a bus from Harare and was helped to wade across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River and met on the other side of the border with the woman who was to take her to her prospective employer in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
In Johannesburg the woman handed her to her “employer,” an Afrikaans-speaking man but for over a week the man kept her on tenterhooks as she waited for him to tell her where she was going to be working.
She sensed that something was amiss as she met with threats each time she asked about the job and could not contact the woman who brought her to South Africa.
“I froze with shock when my prospective employer, who spoke Afrikaans mostly, switched to English and told me straight in the face I would work as a prostitute at a guest house in Johannesburg.
“He threatened to kill me if I refused. To demonstrate his seriousness, he pointed a pistol at me. I realised that the domestic worker job I had been promised was actually a dummy.
“I was taken to a guest lodge in Johannesburg where I was forced to sleep with strangers. I could not escape as there was tight security around the clock and I had nowhere to go.
“All payments for my services were made to Afrikaans-speaking man.”
Mtisi said she was rescued by a cleaner at the lodge who offered her a place to stay at his home.
“After my escape, the cleaner gave me a loan and I started selling brooms and clothes raising money to come back home,” she added.
Mtisi is one of hundreds of thousands worldwide who unwittingly fall into the trap of human trafficking rings preying on people seeking the proverbial greener pastures.
According to media reports, a shady syndicate masquerading as an employment agency is believed to be luring Zimbabwean women to China where they are forced to work as club strippers and to act in pornographic films.
The syndicate, believed to comprise a Zimbabwean based in Beijing and an undisclosed number of Chinese nationals, is using Harare-based runners to recruit the women.
The ring targets both sexes but mostly females aged between 16 and 25. Social joints, among them upmarket night clubs, are some of the recruiting grounds.
Men are recruited to work as escorts, commonly known by the English title gigolos, which is big business in parts of Asia, Europe and the United States.
The agent said individuals were supposed to process their own travel visas at a cost of US$90 for six months’ double entry. The agents meet the travel and accommodation expenses and pay the recruits US$500 as a start-up salary.
Dumisani Mambo, a bus driver who plies the Johannesburg-Harare route, said there was a well-organised network of people who get their unsuspecting victims across the border only to hand them over to “employers” who force them into servitude.
“Those that are being smuggled avoid the border post and cross the Limpopo River on foot. They are helped by soldiers and police who patrol the area together and other individuals for a 500 rand fee.
“This happens everyday enriching a few individuals. It’s like corruption. If you ask about it no one is willing to tell you anything about these operations, they are very secretive,” he said.
According to the US Embassy Trafficking in Human 2013 report human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation is more often irrelevant.
Trafficking can take place within a country.
Zimbabwe Women’s Resources and Network Centre Director Pamela Mhlanga says human trafficking is a practice that is robbing the nation of its human resource which could contribute immensely to the country’s economy.
“Women’s socio-economic positions and responsibilities of looking after their families are compromised as they are lured into what they would have assumed is opportunity. It is sad as their rights are being violated, but more so, there is loss of human capital for the turnaround of the economy. Though not quantified, the participation of women in the economy is very important,” she says.
The International Organisation (IOM) on Migration says Zimbabwe still remains a preferred destination and transit by human traffickers. IOM says about 148 cases have been reported so far this year and two cases have been to the country’s courts. The IOM chief of mission Martin Ocaga says the prevalence of human trafficking has not been verifiable since the country does not have verifiable legislation that addresses this.
“The prevalence of human trafficking in Zimbabwe has not been empirically and scientifically verified due a few challenges which include the absence of enabling legislation and limited funding to undertake the research at a national level.
He says human trafficking thrives under conditions of vulnerability which can be caused by several factors, among them limited educational facilities, poverty, poor economic circumstances, gender and age.
“In most instances, the victims are lured through fraud and false pretences. They only discover the trafficking circumstances later on.
Police provincial spokesperson for Harare inspector Tedious Chibanda says it is difficult to arrest suspects for human trafficking as there are no laws prohibiting the crime.
“Authorities currently use the Immigration Act to arrest those travelling without proper documents with while those who hold people hostage are charged for kidnapping,” he said.
Meanwhile, government has gazetted the Trafficking in Persons Bill which was passed in parliament recently.
The Bill seeks to domesticate the Parlemo Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children.
The Bill provides for the prohibition, prevention and prosecution of the crime of trafficking in persons and the protection of victims.
It also seeks to appoint a committee on trafficking in persons with a mandate to formulate and implement a national plan of action against trafficking in persons.
“Penalties for the crime will vary in gravity depending on whether the accused person is the actual trafficker himself or herself, or simply an associate or assistant to the trafficker,” reads the preamble to the Bill.
In the first case, a mandatory sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment without an option of a fine is legislated. In the other case, the courts are given a broader discretion to impose fines, imprisonment or both.
“However, an associate or assistant to a trafficker will also be liable to the mandatory sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment if he or she is aware of the existence of certain aggravating features of the crime in the course of its commission,” reads the Bill.