Rescuing trafficking victims in Malawi

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Human trafficking is a problem in Malawi with teenage boys forced to work as farm labourers and young women sexually exploited in nightclubs or bars. The UN is supporting Malawi government efforts to end the practice and protect vulnerable people.

One example is six Nepalese men who believed they were heading to the US for work. Instead after a journey through six countries, they arrived in Malawi. They were locked in a house and their passports were taken away.

Another is a husband and wife who were offered lucrative jobs on a tobacco estate in neighbouring Zambia. Once there, they were badly treated, deprived of food and not paid at the end of their contract.

Malawi is a transit country for trafficking victims taken to other African countries including South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique and to Europe.

“The Malawi government accepts more needs to be done to tackle this crime and there are gaps in the current approach,” says Maxwell Matewere, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) National Project Officer on Trafficking in Persons. “It appreciates the expertise we offer”.

Following a request from the Homeland Security Ministry for support in implementation of the national Trafficking in Persons Act, developed with UNODC assistance, Matewere spent three weeks mentoring law enforcement officers.

“On-site coaching took place in Blantyre, Phalombe and Mchinji. These are regions with the highest prevalence of trafficking in the country,” he said.

During the sessions, the UNODC expert reviewed cases to establish whether law enforcement and protection officers followed correct procedures.

“We discovered in many cases this did not happen, but it was encouraging to see the commitment of the participants. They are determined to improve on weaknesses we identified and learn from our expertise,” Matewere said.

Officials responsible for responding to human trafficking, investigating cases, supporting victims and prosecuting perpetrators took part.

“I learnt about standards and procedures we must follow when providing assistance to trafficking victims,” Stephano Joseph, district social welfare officer for Blantyre, said.

Caleb Ng’ombo, co-ordinator for the Blantyre district inter-agency committee against trafficking in persons, said there are lessons he learnt including the significance of putting the needs and rights of victims at the forefront.

“I heard about the importance of supporting victims to minimise the risks of re-traumatising them, which can happen during criminal proceedings.”

Advice on ongoing cases was also provided, which led to positive results.

“I’m receiving reports from participants who managed to identify trafficking victims based on the mentorship,” Matewere said. “Fifty-two Malawian trafficking victims were rescued and five suspects arrested. There are five cases. Three were detected during my coaching and with my technical support”.

“In the other two, police were not sure if people involved were actually victims of human trafficking.  I helped with information from similar cases to confirm they were victims.

“One case involves 28 victims of sexual exploitation. In another case, there are eight victims of forced labour. They were made to work on a farm for months without any payment and had to work long hours. They were basically slaves. Six other people were rescued in transit to a destination where they would have been exploited in the commercial sex industry.

“The other cases involve trafficking for forced or arranged marriage. One girl who was rescued is 13 and pregnant. She is now in a shelter.  Other vulnerable victims are also in shelters and others have returned home.”

Over the past two years, UNODC, through its Global Programme against Trafficking in Persons and with the support of the United Kingdom, assisted Malawi in its efforts to combat human trafficking.

National strategies have been strengthened, legal frameworks brought in line with international standards and the country’s system to assist and protect victims improved.

The mentoring had immediate impact as officials who took part are using their newly acquired skills and knowledge.