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Malawi loses children to Tanzanian traffickers

 INSP 09 July 2019

Fuelled by extreme poverty, Malawi has long been a hub for human traffickers looking for children to coerce into forced labour with the promise of them earning higher wages abroad. The story of ten-year old trafficking victim Walusungu Msondo shows how easily Tanzanian traffickers can lure vulnerable children over the border and officials warn that the problem is escalating beyond the government’s control. (1283 Words) - By Henry Kijimwana Mhango

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INSP_Malawi loses children to Tanzanian traffickers

Ten-year-old Msondo Walusungu Msondo, who was first approached by the traffickers while he was fishing at Lake Malawi. Photo: Henry Kijimwana Mhango

INSP_Malawi loses children to Tanzanian traffickers2

Hhaston Mwafuliwa was another victim of Tanzanian traffickers, who witnessed people being killed by wild animals and crocodiles and others who died of cholera due to poor sanitation while they were forced to fish in Tanzania. Photo: Henry Kijimwana Mhango

INSP_Malawi loses children to Tanzanian trafficker3

Emote Msuku is another victim of Tanzanian traffickers and ended up fishing at Lake Rukwa. He said: "There were a lot of problems we were going through at the lake apart from being financially exploited. Hunger was a major problem. We were sleeping in trees for fear of being caught by wild animals." Photo: Henry Kijimwana Mhango


"The foreigners were being directed by two local people who could show them where they could get young fishermen. When they found me and my colleagues at the lake, they coaxed us with some money and told us that they had well-paying job for us in Tanzania," recalls 10-year-old Msondo Walusungu Msondo, who was first approached by the traffickers while he was fishing at Lake Malawi.

At the time, the boy and his friends thought their poverty stricken lives were about to change for the better but instead it was the beginning of a nightmare. Msondo lives in Ngala on Malawi's border in the district of Karonga, close to Tanzania; where the five men had travelled from to seek vulnerable children. The men told Msondo and his friends they would earn good money for themselves and their families if they came to fish at Lake Rukwa and Lake Tanganyika, both in Tanzania. "When they told us that, we did not hesitate to accept the chance because we felt it was the only way to relieve ourselves from the absolute poverty we were going through," he adds.

The men explained the arrangements for the trip to the boys but after instructing the youngsters not to inform their parents, some of Msondo's friends changed their minds. However, Msondo, who is from an extremely poor family, decided to go because he thought the men would bring financial success to his life for the first time.

He set off with them and the group was later joined by more young fishermen who had been recruited by traffickers operating in the Chilumba area, about 35 kilometres south of Ngala in the same district. From there, they boarded a minibus and set off to Karonga Town about 45 km north of Ngara. They used two taxis hired by the traffickers and were ferried across Songwe river which borders Malawi and Tanzania and from there they were taken to Lake Lukwa which is surrounded by thick natural forests and full of wild animals such as snakes, hyenas, tigers and lions, among others.

Msondo recalls witnessing youngsters being eaten by crocodiles and that he and other trafficking victims would be ordered to bury the dead.

It was in the jungle that the youngster realised he had been lied to. There were many other children there, some speaking different languages, and the traffickers told Msondo that he must work nine hours a day catching local fish such as capenta and matemba. He was promised money but only $88 for 12 months work. Msondo asked to leave but the traffickers said this was not possible.

"It was then that all the good dreams about my future vanished unexpectedly as my bosses, who seemed to be good Samaritans when I was in Malawi, turned against me," he says.

Fishing on the lake can be perilous and Msondo recalls witnessing youngsters being eaten by crocodiles and that he and other trafficking victims would be ordered to bury the dead. A friend from Ngara was among the victims and Msondo says he will never forget what he saw.

Last year the US State Department published a report that said Malawi is a source country for men, women, and children who are subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. The authors said that the government of Malawi does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but that it was making significant efforts to do so. In October 2009, the UK's Department for International Development allocated £18,119 for an anti-trafficking project to protect children at risk in Malawi but the scheme ended in March 2010. Today, there are fears the problem is escalating.

Local community leaders said some Malawians were collaborating with Tanzanian traffickers and luring young children over the border.

Mwirang'ombe, a community leader of Ngala, said he was "deeply shocked" at recent events. "We have already lost a young man who was caught by a crocodile at Lake Lukwa. We only received a message and we have not even had a chance to see his remains so we only had a symbolic burial ceremony - it's very painful."

Mwirang'ombe said he had reported evidence of the crime to the government through the Karonga District Council but nothing had been done. "This has really let me down because we are continuing losing innocent children, (the) government must do something because human trafficking is illegal", he explained.

His views were backed by Habiba Osman, a top human rights lawyer Malawi's who works with the Ecumenical Council of Malawi. She said that a lack of legislation on human trafficking is contributing to the increased prevalence of the crime in Gambia: "The problem is that we don't have a human trafficking law in place so this makes it difficult for government to actively trace such cases. I feel so pained when I hear these sad stories from Karonga district, and it is high time that we pressurise our law makers to put a human trafficking law in place to address this issue." Osman added that many girls and boys from Malawi are taken to not only Tanzania but other neighbouring countries such as Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa where they are forced into the sexual trade and/or domestic slavery.

"We don't have a human trafficking law in place so this makes it difficult for government to actively trace such cases."

Chief Wasambo of Chilumba Police said that unemployed young people in Malawi were being coaxed over the border by Tanzanian nationals to do fishing for low wages.

"I am aware of the practice and most youths are going there due to lack of activities to earn themselves a living. The provision of business loans and creation of temporary jobs can positively contribute towards the fight against human trafficking here," said Chief Wasambo. In response, Haston Jaji from the Ministry of Gender and Welfare at Karonga District Welfare office said that, while there had been confirmed reports of human trafficking in the district, the number of cases had reduced due to government awareness campaigns.

Any such campaigns came too late for Chaston Mwafuliwa and Emot Msuku from Karonga district who were also victims of the traffickers and who ended up fishing at Lake Rukwa. They too witnessed people being killed by wild animals and crocodiles and said others died of cholera due to poor sanitation. They said people had no access to clean water and there was little food.

"There were a lot of problems we were going through at the lake apart from being financially exploited. Hunger was a major problem. We were sleeping in trees for fear of being caught by wild animals since they are plenty of them," said Msuku.

The boys were stranded there for ten months as the traffickers refused to pay them any money whatsoever. Finally, one of the men drove them to the Songwe border where he abandoned them. "We used uncharted routes to enter the Malawi side since we didn't have passports and when we arrived we requested officials from the Malawi Revenue Authority at the border for transport, and they drove us to our homes in Chilumba and Ngala," Msuku said, adding that many of their young countrymen were left in Tanzania.

Msondo was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape back to Malawi. He has vowed that he will never be coaxed by the traffickers again: "I can't go back to school because this [fishing] my source of bread and butter, though I am aware that my education is a milestone to a very successful life."

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