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Africa

'Walk for freedom' march highlights human trafficking

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Activists dressed in black stage a silent march in Paris, 15 October to shine spotlight on human trafficking. Christina Okello for RFI

Campaigners took to the streets in over forty countries this weekend to  protest against human trafficking and slavery. Silent marches were staged here in France as part of the global initiative by A21, an organization working to spread awareness about modern-day slavery. RFI's Christina Okello was there.

A long, single-file of around 200 people - mostly students but also parents and children - dressed in black, some with their mouths taped shut, silently made its way through the streets of Paris on Saturday, to highlight the problems of human trafficking and slavery.

"We decided to do it this way, you know a long file, instead of marching and making noise, because we felt that silence makes more noise sometimes, especially in a city like Paris," says student Tiyamike Dingilesi.

Protesters remained silent throughout the two-hour march which ended at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and handed out pamphlets to bystanders detailing the harsh realities of human slavery as they walked along the route.

Every thirty seconds a person becomes a victim of human trafficking, according to A21's event organizer, Justine Aubron. Most of them end up as sex slaves.

"It's mostly in Eastern Europe, in countries like Greece. When you're a boy and you become a man - let's say about 15 - it's the culture to buy a prostitute, it's their culture to have sex slaves," says Aubron.

Reports estimate that sex trafficking alone brings in almost 90 billion euros per year for criminal organizaitons. This does not include profits from forced labour and organ trafficking.

Silent suffering

"Modern day slavery is a serious thing and not a lot of people know about it," student Tiyamike Dingilesi said.

The Zimbabwean-born activist says she's particularly concerned because of what's going on inside in Zimbabwe.

“I have seen the effects of slavery coming from Africa you know. I remember we had a lot of incidents of girls being trafficked to Kuwait and it was a really bad situation where they were promised work and school and everything, and two weeks later they found themselves in sex institutions and all that stuff.”

The story Dingilesi is describing broke headlines in Zimbabwe this summer, when it emerged that dozens of women were recruited to work as maids in Kuwait, but ended up working as slaves instead.

"Before the case was brought to the attention of the [Zimbabwean] authorities, people didn't really know that people were being trafficked to Kuwait and other Arab countries," explains Dzimbabwe Chimbga, a Programme Manager for Zimbabwe lawyers for human rights.

It emerged that more than 300 women were living in squalid like conditions in Kuwait, with some victims still stranded.

Poverty a driving factor

The case sent shockwaves throughout Zimbabwe, but it also brought to the fore the desperate situation of Zimbabweans prepared to do whatever it takes to escape poverty and a bitter financial crisis.

"Zimbabwe really becomes vulnerable from the perspective of the challenges it's facing right now," says Adolphus Chinomwe, a Senior Programme Officer at the International Labour Organisation in Zimbabwe.

For Chinomwe, Harare's close diplomatic ties with Kuwait may have fuelled the trafficking.

"We have an embassy in Kuwait city and we have a Kuwait embassy also here in Harare, people were applying through seemingly, what are normal channels, you know applying for a visa to go and work in Kuwait. But Kuwait has a system of managing migration which transfers the responsibility of managing a migrant or someone who requires migrant labour from the state to the person or to the enterprise."

The Kafala system as it's known, operating in 19 Gulf states, has been criticized by rights groups.

"People -- maids in this case-- are made to work for 22 hours per day, staying in cages, they're not paid their wages, their passports are confiscated and they don't get wages, and so forth, and some even end up being sexually exploited," adds Chinomwe.

Tackling Human Trafficking

The indignation sparked by the Kuwait trafficking scandal has urged authorities to act.

The government passed new legislation to penalize human traffickers, and made several arrests.

"Two or three years ago, Zimbabwe didn't have any framework for monitoring, let alone penalizing predators of human trafficking," says Chinomwe, who welcomes the new Action Plan against trafficking.

Three suspects are also due to go on trial at Zimbabwe's Magistrates Court in connection with the Kuwait case. Expectation nonetheless is high.

"It will be very important that there be prosecution and especially a conviction of those who are found guilty," reckons Chimbga, from Zimbabwe lawyers for human rights.

"It would send a message that Zimbabwe, like the international community, does not tolerate human trafficking, so this would suggest that Zimbabwe is taking its role seriously."

Yet with the financial challenges facing Zimbabwe, critics would argue that what the government should be doing is providing people with jobs. This will make them less vulnerable to the false promises of unscrupulous traffickers.

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