Human trafficking remains a serious concern in Malawi. The landlocked country ranks among the world’s most densely populated and poorest countries in the world. Malawi is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and sexual exploitation. Internal human trafficking is believed more common than transnational human trafficking, and forced labour exists, particularly on tobacco plantations. The government’s inability to fully implement key legislation or policies to provide protection, existing gaps in labour law and insufficient resource allocation are impeding prosecution of perpetrators.
A transnational problem
The US State Department warned that Malawian human trafficking will continue unless government enforces legislation. Victims have been identified in African and European countries, are given false identities and are forced into drugs and prostitution. Malawi’s victims of sex and labour trafficking have been identified in Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Europe. Also, the country’s borders are used for transiting victims from neighbouring countries and the Horn of Africa to South Africa. In response to the crisis, on 15 Nov 2018, the Government of Malawi, in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and with the financial support of the United Kingdom, launched a project combatting trafficking in persons.
The project has four specific objectives:
- to support Malawi in developing and/or strengthening and implementing national strategies, plans or policies against trafficking in persons;
- to bring its national legal frameworks in compliance with international standards;
- to strengthen its criminal justice response to trafficking in persons, including through regional cooperation in criminal matters related to trafficking in persons, following a victim centred-approach; and
- to strengthen victim protection and assistance.
‘Hunted like animals’
A disturbing trafficking trend has emerged in Malawi since 2014. Criminal gangs of so-called “albino hunters” have been on the rise to fill a demand for the bones of albino people in Tanzania, where they are highly prized in black magic ceremonies. Albinism is a congenital condition that leaves a person without colouration in their skin and hair. The current population of people with albinism in Malawi is estimated between 7,000 and 10,000, representing a ratio of 1 in every 1,800 persons —a prevalence of more than 12 times that of North America and Europe. In parts of Africa, some witch doctors claim the use of albino body parts in magic potions can be used to bring good luck. Some allege sex with albinos can cure HIV/AIDS, putting albinos at risk of sexual assault. Since 2013, at least 26 albinos have been murdered in Malawi alone. In 2016, a UN human rights expert stated that persons with albinism in Malawi are “an endangered group facing a risk of systemic extinction over time if nothing is done.”
There are reported cases that albino people’s own family members have led them into criminal hands in order to receive money for their bones. According to the International Red Cross, a “complete set” of albino bones can be sold for up to $75,000 in neighbouring Tanzania. This has resulted in traffickers raiding cemeteries to unearth graves where people with albinism are buried for their body parts or bones. Boniface Massah, a Malawian albino rights’ activist, said “we are hunted like animals.” Archbishop Thomas Luke Msusa of Blantyre said Malawi’s National Intelligence Bureau and other police agencies could identify “the market for the bones in order to end the killings of the people with albinism.” In a statement, Amnesty International said “although some people have been arrested for albinism-related crimes, we have serious concerns about the inadequacy of police investigations, and perpetrators being dealt sentences, not in line with the severity of the crime.”
Myths and beliefs
Despite the Malawian government’s modest efforts and gains to prevent trafficking, its continued prevalence remains a stain on law enforcement and a gold rush for organized crime. In a statement speaking to the spate of killings of albinos, Mary Shawa, the principal secretary of the Ministry of Gender, Disability and Social Welfare in Malawi, said “it is clear the rise in cases is because of myths and beliefs that are coming from elsewhere”. She continued by claiming “the majority of people demanding body parts are witch doctors who are not Malawians.”
However, this is a moot point and does not negate the responsibility of the local authorities to prevent and prosecute these illicit activities, protect their citizens, including the most vulnerable. Amnesty International says security for people with albinism in Malawi has been “seriously compromised by the government’s failure to deploy an effective plan to end violence […] and bring perpetrators to justice.” In a country where half the population lives in poverty, the promise of huge financial reward for trafficking is also in large part responsible.
Image: Global Journalist (link)