Human trafficking rife in Malawi refugee camp

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Investigations by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Malawian Police Service uncovered widespread exploitation of men, women and children at a refugee camp in Malawi.

Measures are now underway to dismantle human trafficking networks in Dzaleka refugee camp, identify and rescue victims and bring those responsible to justice.

“The situation was worse than first envisaged,” UNODC’s Maxwell Matewere said. He first visited the camp in October 2020 training camp staff and law enforcement officers on detecting and responding to trafficking incidents.

“I witnessed a type of Sunday market, where people come to buy children who were then exploited in forced labour and prostitution,” he said.

UNODC coached and mentored 28 camp officials and law enforcement officers now involved in victim identification and investigating of trafficking as well as training others at police stations and border crossing posts.

Since training and implementation of anti-trafficking procedures started more than 90 victims have been identified and rescued.

Guidelines for identification, rescue and referral of victims were developed by UNODC, with from support of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

“UNHCR and its partners will not give up on efforts to stop the scourge of human trafficking and smuggling among refugees in Malawi,” Owen Nyasulu, a field protection associate at UNHCR’s Malawi office and supporter of UNODC work at Dzaleka, said.

Most victims rescued are Ethiopian men, between 18 and 30. There are also girls and women between 12 and 24 from Ethiopia, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Some victims were assisted to return to their countries of origin and others are cared for in safe houses. Victims identified at border crossings requested return to the camp to seek asylum.

A 16-year-old Congolese girl was rescued from forced prostitution by a UNODC trained undercover police officer.

“I arrived at the camp in 2009 after leaving my home country due to conflict. One evening at a nightclub in the camp, I was approached by a man who told me he was identifying exploited people.”

The girl, trafficked when she was 10, explained at first she did not believe or trust the officer, since she thought “all men were violent and looking for sex”.

“One evening, I was beaten by a client for refusing to have sex due to a bleeding cut. I was in pain and it was visible. The officer was friendly and took me to a safe house,” she told a UN representative.

She now attends a computer literacy class and hopes to return home to be a teacher.

The new procedures contain clear guidelines for victim transfer to authorities where they can receive appropriate and proper care.

“Before our intervention, human trafficking victims would have been put in police cells or prisons, alongside criminals. Now they are referred to specially equipped safe houses we helped prepare for victims,” Matewere said.

Children are trafficked in and outside the camp for farm labour and domestic work.

Women and girls are exploited sexually in Dzaleka, in wider Malawi or transported to other southern African countries. Male refugees are subjected to forced labour in the camp or on farms in Malawi and other countries in the region.

The camp is also a hub to process human trafficking victims. Traffickers recruit victims in their home countries under false pretences, arrange for them to cross the border into Malawi and enter the camp.

Based on recent, successful operations in the camp, using intelligence, police now have more knowledge about the international nature of the trafficking network.

“There is evidence victims are sourced in Ethiopia, DRC and Burundi by trafficking network agents offering work opportunities in South Africa – the economic powerhouse on the continent,” Matewere said.

“At the camp, they are told they need to pay off debts incurred while being smuggled into Malawi. They are exploited there or transported to other countries in the region for forced labour.”

So far there have been five arrests and cases are ongoing. Suspected traffickers are from Malawi, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda and DRC.

Efforts to convict human traffickers and migrant smugglers are hampered because people affected are too scared to testify in court according to the Malawian Police Service.

Dzaleka refugee camp, the largest in Malawi, was established in 1994 and is home to more than 50 00 refugees and asylum seekers from five different countries. It was originally designed to accommodate 10 000.

“Authorities suspect a highly organised, international syndicate operating inside the camp,” according to Matewere.

Awareness raising material on human trafficking will be distributed in the camp and is expected to see more victims coming forward.

“All security agencies in the camp must be frequently reminded about their role to eradicate human trafficking through regular training,” says UNHCR’s Nyasulu.