One evening while attending a trafficking in persons workshop organised by the Southern Africa Network Against Trafficking and Abuse of Children (SANTAC) in South Africa, I sat on a table next to some journalists from SADC Countries.
While it was not my intention to eavesdrop, I keenly followed their conversation, which centred on those countries that have already have and those that have not yet passed legislation on human trafficking.
It was interesting and so I was interested to hear their arguments.
One of them said something that caught my attention, and this is what she had said; “If a country is addressing and fighting human rights, trafficking in persons must be one the basic issues to address and the inequalities that come with this gross human rights violation.”
I was tempted to join their table to contribute to their conversation, but I also thought sometimes, it is wise to let the activist in me keep quiet and learn to listen more on the revelations that were coming out from that table, pertaining trafficking in the region.
Their conversation brought out some critical issues which I choose to highlight in this article and why I strongly believe that Malawi must not remain behind in passing legislation that will effectively combat trafficking in persons.
Besides, Malawi has made some significant strides already in protecting children against this plight through the passing of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act in 2010 which specifically prohibits child trafficking as a harmful cultural practice.
Nonetheless, despite progress in this regard, every person that has read or worked in addressing this issue knows that trafficking in persons is multifaceted and as such, to address it, holistic approaches need to be developed to achieve protecting victims and prosecution of offenders and preventing it.
Many questions that I encounter whenever I speak out about this issue borders on whether trafficking in persons is real or whether it happens at all.
The fact that many countries are even struggling with the conceptualization of trafficking in persons as it is called, adds to the confusion or shows a lack of awareness on this issue.
Compounding the problem further is the lack of data within the country to convince people that trafficking in persons is real and that people are being exploited without knowing that they are.
Trafficking in persons is one crime which is not easy to detect and recognise. The modus operandi itself is clandestine.
There are various methods in which potential victims are lured into bondage and this is in part due to socio-economic marginalisation and vulnerability, misinformed rural communities and most importantly the lack of political will to enforce human rights covenants.
Trafficking is also organised crime and as such, traffickers operating in the SADC region for example, are part of loose and informal networks that span across the globe.
This is what makes stopping their activities a greater obstacle, because they are working with larger regional and global crime syndicates that are also involved in smuggling narcotics, human organs and undocumented immigrants around SADC Member States.
Malawi faces a number of challenges spanning from incapacity of the law enforcement to detect the crime, lack of relevant legislation to bring traffickers to book, inability to protect victims once they have been trafficked, and resource constraints for most people who become targets for the traffickers.
Statistics in Malawi show that it is mostly young people aged 12-17 that are mostly trafficked within and outside our borders. The recent 2014 case of 5 boys that were trafficked to Tanzania and were rescued by our Police Officers in Chitipa is one of the rare cases of rescue that has been reported.
Imagine how many people are trafficked outside our porous border posts that are never known or are not found. 1n 2012, 29 children as reported by Nyasa Times were also rescued while being trafficked to Zanzibar in Karonga however, the trafficker escaped from the country.
Judicial Officers have testified how it is difficult to punish perpetrators and sentence them adequately in the absence of a specific law. On one hand, Prosecutors and Investigators also experience challenges as they have to rely on the loose pieces of legislation to charge offenders.
This leads to minimal fines being imposed and traffickers getting convicted on lesser charges not commensurate to the crime of trafficking. Our neighbours have enacted specific laws on trafficking; Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa just to mention a few.
It is important therefore that Malawi also passes a law on trafficking urgently. The fact that traffickers also use Malawi as a transit route for their criminal activities is because our immigration officers have not been capacitated to deal with such complex issues. The need for a specific law to be enforced is critical.
I would also argue further that merely passing legislation is not enough; action must be taken against the perpetrators. Criminalisation has to happen in practice.
In summary, human trafficking violates the dignity of a human being and it is also a heinous crime. Statistics from the UN estimate that 32 billion US dollars in profits is generated globally for trafficking in persons as a trade and is rated the second largest crime in the world next to drug trafficking.
The organisation of trafficking offending is relatively under-researched.
This constitutes a significant gap in the knowledge base, as research on this issue has the capacity to better inform victim identification and investigation and prosecution strategies.
It is on these premises that Malawi must pass a law on trafficking so that such gaps are bridged but most importantly, our people are protected.
*Habiba Osman is a Malawian militant human rights lawyer and human trafficking specialist campaigner and is based in the capital, Lilongwe and writes in her personal capacity…*