Elton Ndumiso (fictitious name), a bus-conductor who works the route from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, to neighboring South Africa, sees it all the time: Zimbabwean women travelling with three or four children, who are clearly not their own kids, and taking them across the border. While there are a large number of instances of child smuggling and trafficking across Zimbabwe’s porous borders, these cases still remain unknown and unreported because of the nature of the crime.
It’s a crime that most bus drivers or conductors either turn a blind eye to, or become accomplices in by assisting the women. According to Ndumiso, in many cases, some bus drivers go as far as “talking to” or even bribing border officials, to allow them to let the children and women enter neighboring countries without regular migration documents.
“A number of children have been transported by female smugglers to cross the border. Some of the women will be in possession of signed affidavits that claim they are the legal guardians of the children. It is difficult to prove what the intensions of the smugglers would be once they have crossed the border to South Africa,” says Ndumiso.
The Parliament of Zimbabwe notes that child trafficking is one of the greatest challenges the country is facing as a result of the prevailing economic conditions. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) — an intergovernmental United Nations agency that provides services and oversights around migration — there are a number of cases of Zimbabwean parents living in neighboring countries who pay smugglers to reunite them with their children in their new country.
Ndumiso may not know what risks await the children after they cross the border, but he’s seen cases of children being at risk during the journey as well. He remembered a recent case of a woman who was smuggling four children across the border into South Africa and had lost one of the kids when the bus stopped for a break.
“The young child was eight years old and disappeared in the small mining town of Mvuma in Midlands Province where the bus had stopped for a break. We searched for the child but could not find her. We had to leave the woman at the nearest police and a police report was made.” Ndumiso explains that the woman had claimed she was transporting the children to join their parents in South Africa.
IOM-Zimbabwe head of programs Ana Medeiros told IPS that this was largely due to the fact that in many cases victims were afraid to speak out and tell their stories. The 2018 Zimbabwe Parliament Committee on Human Rights’ report states that figures about this illicit crime are unavailable. In the report, parliament recorded that in Zimbabwe the crime of child trafficking is difficult to establish as large amounts of money are gathered in the illegal trade to create networks around the world.
“These are calculative syndicates who create links within the government and… world to recruit unsuspecting victims who are lured by the need to improve their lives,” read the report.
According to Virginia Muwanigwa, the Head of the Zimbabwe Gender Commission, very few cases of child trafficking are addressed each year in Zimbabwe, as they are difficult to trace. “In most cases, the traffickers who pay the smugglers to transport the children along the borders are close family members who may have … affidavits and consent from parents or guardians of the children for transportation and may also pay a bribe to border officials,” she explained.
According to IOM, smuggling is mostly prevalent on the borders of South Africa and Botswana because documents can be forged and people bribed to allow entry without proper documents.
Medeiros, however, careful points out that, “smugglers are not traffickers because in most cases they are paid for their service to facilitate the process of smuggling. However, in some cases they may be linked to the traffickers.” The easy porous borders means that the trafficking of children is also prevalent.
“Child trafficking cases are difficult to trace because minors are not responsible for their actions and there is a thin line between smuggling and trafficking. Trafficking is not always clear as many trafficked people may be recorded as migrants in the country of destination,” Medeiros told IPS.
When it comes to cases of child trafficking, usually trusted people like church and family members recruited children with promised work or education outside the country where they either ended up in domestic servitude or as sex slaves.
IOM is currently supporting Zimbabwe with capacity building and training programs to educate people in the crime of human trafficking. “IOM has supported the government through the Ministry of Public Service Labor and Social Welfare and Civil Society Organizations in providing information through promotional materials such as flyers, banners, T-shirts, road-shows throughout the country’s provinces to educate people on trafficking,” Medeiros told IPS. In addition, the U.N. agency also shelters victims of trafficking. “At the shelters victims receive counselling and share their stories on how they ended up being smuggled or trafficked,” Medeiros added.
The Global Sustainability Network ( GSN ), which actively supports the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 8 of decent work and economic growth, has focused much of its work on eliminating modern slavery. It, however, acknowledges that globally the legal system has failed to put an end to trafficking and that new laws are needed to protect citizens from this.
“The legal system can be the driver for change — so let’s use the instruments already in place — the law firms that are willing to drive change. Initiate any new laws/programs not as a marketing add-on but a business norm and a business imperative. We need rule of law and safety of citizens in place — civilized society cannot exist without the rule of law in place,” GSN states on its website.
Muwanigwa too wants to see stronger laws in place to protect Zimbabwe’s children. “There is need for legislation reform as very few cases of child-smuggling or trafficking in persons are investigated. Resource constraints are also the major drawback when it comes to issues of human trafficking in Zimbabwe,” Muwanigwa told IPS.