Malawi’s Vulnerable Shortchanged in Human Trafficking Prevention Efforts

Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, just doesn’t have the financial resources to combat human trafficking. With 50 percent of this country’s 18 million people living below the poverty line, many are susceptible to the crime of trafficking. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, just doesn’t have the financial resources to combat human trafficking. With 50 percent of this country’s 18 million people living below the poverty line, many are susceptible to the crime of trafficking. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

By Charity Chimungu Phiri
BLANTYRE, Malawi , May 13 2020 – Malawi is not doing enough to enforce its laws on human trafficking, resulting in a number of cases against perpetrators being dismissed by the courts, according to a local rights group. But local officials say that this Southern African nation — one of the poorest countries in the world — just doesn’t have the financial resources to do so.

  • The 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Act criminalises sex and labour trafficking, with up to 14 years imprisonment for offences involving an adult victim, and up to 21 years imprisonment for offences involving a child.
  •  The TIP Act mandated the creation of a Trafficking in Persons Fund (TIPF), to financially support victims with aid, counselling and seeking justice.
  •  In addition, Malawi has set up a National Coordination Committee Against Trafficking in Persons (NCCATIP) and developed a National Plan of Action Against Trafficking in Persons (2017-2022).

No funds to help trafficking victims

Caleb Thole, the national coordinator of the Malawi Network Against Trafficking (MNAT), a coalition of NGOs, told IPS that they are concerned that the TIPF was empty and not enough assistance was being given to victims.

“When we’re rescuing victims they need to be fed, transported and kept in a shelter, but there are literally no funds in the TIPF, the government cannot show you any…there aren’t even shelter homes to provide safety for victims,” he said.

However, senior deputy secretary for Homeland Security and the national coordinator for NCCATIP, Patricia Liabuba, told IPS that government funding to TIPF has increased, but acknowledged there were financial shortfalls.

“Government funding from 2017 has increased gradually from $66,000 to $200,000 in 2019. It is an undisputed fact that trafficking in person issues are multi-sectoral in nature and that the key challenge is insufficient funds to provide shelter and protection services for the victims,” she told IPS. 

Liabuba acknowledged the government was, by law, responsible for “repatriating victims and reintegrating them with the community as well as international victims”.

  • Between 2016 and 2018, the Malawian government, with support from international agencies, repatriated over 80 girls who were trafficked to Kuwait under the pretence of gainful employment.
  • In 2016, authorities said they needed about $17,300 to bring home 28 girls who were destitute in Kuwait after their employers took away their passports.

Some victims make their own way home

Modestar* was one of those young Malawian women who had been stranded overseas. She had left her home in Zalewa, a town in Malawi’s southern region for Kurdistan in northern Iraq, some 5,400 miles away, after being promised a well-paying job looking after the elderly.

But the salary she had been promised was slashed in half, and her phone and passport was confiscated upon her arrival. She was forced to work long hours caring for an elderly patient in a private home.

“I was not allowed to go outside of the compound. I worked long hours, at times from 7am to 1am [the next day], without getting paid,” she told IPS.

Eventually she was rescued by Iraqi police who had been tipped off by another woman who had also been in domestic service with Modestar. But the women soon realised they may not be able to return home, as the employment agent refused to return their passports.

“It took the police threatening to shut down their agency for them to agree to let us go; so they went and cancelled our visas and gave us our money and we left,” she recalled.

She had been fortunate that the ‘agent’ had agreed to pay her return airfare — but it was only as far as Johannesburg, South Africa.

While the TIPF is meant for repatriation, there had been no funding available for her. Instead, MNAT stepped in cover the costs her journey from Johannesburg back to Malawi. 

Most cases of trafficking are local

Liabuba pointed out that in Malawi, most women and girls are trafficked from rural areas “to work as prostitutes in urban centres and to foreign countries for forced labour, prostitution and sexual exploitation”.

Thole confirmed this: “The country registers between 15 and 20 cases daily nationwide, mostly from border districts such as Phalombe, Mulanje, and Thyolo. Cases are also reported due to cross border businesses with countries like Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa and also to countries such as Kuwait and the Arab Emirates seeking job opportunities.”

  • The International Monetary Fund estimates that 50 percent of this country’s 18 million people live below the poverty line. Youth unemployment, according to World Bank estimates as of April 2020, stands at 7.5 percent.

Are trafficking criminals are being charged correctly?

Liabuba said that in 2019 the country had recorded 142 trafficking victims, with 32 suspected traffickers charged.

“Following the prosecution and successful trial, 16 of the 32 suspects were convicted and four were discharged and the other 12 are being tried in different courts across the country,” Liabuba said.

Malawi’s Police Service had slightly different figures, stating that in 2019 140 victims of human trafficking where rescued, of which 65 were children.

Malawi Police Services’ public relations officer James Kadadzera told IPS that out of these cases, 48 suspects were arrested, prosecuted and are serving different jail sentences.

“Out of the 48 convicts the longest term was given to one who is serving 12 years imprisonment with hard labour; he was arrested in Phalombe on his way to Mozambique with six boys,” said Kadadzera.

But Thole said MNAT was concerned that many cases ended up being dismissed and that perpetrators are being fined for their crimes — which is against the law — instead of being given jail sentences.

“Convicts who are supposed to be jailed are being released on fines, with some getting light sentences. There’re some agencies which cannot even be questioned as to what sort of activities they’re operating in the country…law enforcement agencies don’t even fully understand the law and how it is supposed to be interpreted,” Thole told IPS.

Last year, Malawi was downgraded to a Tier 2 watchlist country by the United States Department of State. A Tier 2 country, means that while the country does not comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, they are making significant attempts to do so.  

According to a U.S. Department of State report on trafficking in Malawi, the “government did not investigate or hold any complicit officials criminally accountable despite these credible allegations and several past cases of Malawian diplomats, police, health, and immigration officials engaged in trafficking abroad. The government did not report referring or otherwise providing protective services to any trafficking victims”.

Educate people about trafficking and create more jobs

But Kadadzera called for intensive civic education on trafficking, especially for young women and girls, who are disproportionately affected by the crime. 

“Just last week a young lady approached us privately saying she was having doubts about a certain gentleman who claimed to be an agent who could help her get health care work in the United Kingdom. She had already paid the man [about $650] which she has since gotten back and swears not to get carried away again,” he said.

The U.N’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Malawi is one of the agencies working with the government to combat human trafficking.

  • It supported the government develop the National Plan of Action Against Trafficking in Persons, conducted capacity-building activities against trafficking and aided with resource mobilisation to strengthen the trafficking fund, among other things.

“However, more needs to be done in creating services that increase employment opportunities and reduction of poverty among at-risk population,” said IOM Chief Commissioner Mpilo Nkomo.

Modestar is a case in point. While funding from the TIPF had not been available to her, upon her return home, MNAT provided her with capital, which she used to start a small business selling clothing and cosmetics.   

But Liabuba acknowledged that the government needed to do more in its fight against trafficking.

“The Malawi government should do more to lobby with donor partners for resources for construction of shelters and direct assistance to victims of trafficking…enhance capacity for law enforcers, judicial officers, the National Coordination Committee and protection officers…and develop more nationwide educational programmes targeting mainly women and children,” she said.

But Thole told IPS there was lack of political will to eliminate human trafficking in Malawi.

“We need structures, systems and financial resources in place to support the fight against trafficking in persons in Malawi. Other countries like the U.S. have put stringent measures in place to deal with trafficking for example banning visas for domestic workers for Malawian diplomats. We’re currently we’re on Tier 2 on the watch list which means we’re slowly moving into Tier 3, which is the worst,” Thole said.

* Name changed to protect her identity. 

** Writing with Nalisha Adams in Bonn.

This is part of a series of features from across the globe on human trafficking. IPS coverage is supported by the Airways Aviation Group.

The Global Sustainability Network ( GSN ) is pursuing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 8 with a special emphasis on Goal 8.7 which ‘takes immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms’.

The origins of the GSN come from the endeavours of the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders signed on 2 December 2014. Religious leaders of various faiths, gathered to work together “to defend the dignity and freedom of the human being against the extreme forms of the globalisation of indifference, such us exploitation, forced labour, prostitution, human trafficking” and so forth.


!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+’://’;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, ‘script’, ‘twitter-wjs’);

The UN Is Hunting for a New Medical Director, Based in New York City

Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, prepping for a virtual press briefing with him, April 30, 2020, UN headquarters. The secretary-general had asked the current UN medical director, Dr. Jillann Farmer, to extend her term a few months during the coronavirus crisis. But now she is returning to her home country, Australia. Credit: ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

By Stéphanie Fillion, PassBlue*
UNITED NATIONS, May 13 2020 – “Are you a senior medical executive with expertise in healthcare management with oversight of clinical services and occupational health at a facility, state, national or international level? The United Nations Secretariat is seeking a Medical Director at the D-2 level in the Department of Operational Support,” an ad posting on the UN’s job portal reads.

Dr. Jillann Farmer, the current UN medical director, is leaving, so the main person in charge of advising whether the UN headquarters compound, in New York City, is going to remain open or closed in the pandemic will be replaced.

“This was the first time we had simultaneously to move into our own business continuity model, while supporting the rest of the world,” Dr. Farmer told PassBlue in an email during her last week at the UN, before returning to Australia on May 15. She is taking up a new job in Brisbane, her hometown.

The UN has not confirmed whether a successor for Dr. Farmer has been found yet.

Over the last few months, Dr. Farmer was the person advising UN Secretary-General António Guterres as to whether the UN should remain physically open in the New York City lockdown, and recommended that it do so as of mid-March, with the provision that UN personnel in the Secretariat should telecommute, affecting nearly 13,000 people. She has also consulted with the New York City authorities in her decision-making.

Despite recent infighting among some countries about whether the headquarters should remain physically closed or reopen for meetings of member states on June 1st, her departure does not seem to be political. In fact, Dr. Farmer did the UN a favor by staying during the pandemic, as her departure was first planned before the outbreak hit New York City on March 1st.

Dr. Farmer said she gave notice that she was leaving the UN in February and was supposed to leave in April for Brisbane to become deputy director-general for the Department of Health in Queensland, the second-largest state in Australia. She stayed because of a recent personal request from Guterres himself. She extended her stay overall at the UN for much longer than she has done before in her career.

“For most of my career, I have changed roles every 5 years or so,” she told PassBlue. “The SG’s [secretary-general] reforms and the changes it brought meant that extending for a couple more years was sensible, because my job changed a bit, but after 7 years, it’s time to move and look for new challenges. This was also an opportunity for me to return home and be close to my family.”

As medical director since 2012, Dr. Farmer has been in charge of the UN’s internal health care system, including oversight for UN personnel worldwide and more than 400 health care services, from primary care clinics to military forward medical services and hospitals, according to the organization.

Before she worked for the UN, Dr. Farmer had been a clinical doctor, a medical executive and a patient-safety improvement expert. During her term at the UN, she handled the UN’s response to the Ebola crisis, the Zika virus and now Covid-19.

The current crisis has been different because it hit the home base. “The biggest challenge was the headquarters of this vast global organization was also at the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States,” she said. “We started preparation for a pandemic in January, when the first signals of risk were given by WHO. Our guidance materials and advice were pushed out regularly to staff and diplomats from the end of January onwards. As the pandemic spread, there was an increasing demand for advice and support, and then New York City experienced its own severe outbreak.”

As of May 7, the UN reported 413 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among UN personnel globally and 6 deaths.

Jillann Farmer

Dr. Jillann Farmer, the UN medical director, is leaving after seven years leading the organization’s internal health care system globally.

The decision to extend telecommuting for UN personnel working at the headquarters in New York City, which is the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, would never be easy. A note from Dr. Farmer to the office of the president of the General Assembly was leaked at the end of April, recommending that “maintaining the current arrangements until 30 June will allow stability during a period of great uncertainty, as we evaluate the impact on transmission of the loosening of the current containment measures.”

A spokesperson for the UN denied several times that the UN headquarters was going to remain partly closed through June, but then confirmed it this week. Dr. Farmer said her letter had been misinterpreted.

“My note of 29 April was to the Office of the President of the General Assembly and had nothing to do with closure of the building or telecommuting,” she said. “His office had asked for guidance regarding in-person meetings of member states and my recommendation was that in-person meetings should continue to be avoided whenever possible, regardless of the number of participants. Events should be virtual.

“Where there is no other choice, in person meetings should have the absolute minimum number of participants, and all should maintain standards of physical distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette. Persons who are experiencing any symptoms of ill health should not attend.”

The UN’s current decision is to extend the telecommuting plan of the headquarters from May 31 until the end of June, as recommended by Dr. Farmer.

Unicef, which is not part of the UN Secretariat but is based in New York City, is planning a three-phase reopening, a source told PassBlue. Most staff will be staying home through the rest of the year and staffing on-site will not exceed 40 percent through that period. A small percentage of staff may start in June, but nothing is definite, as it depends on what New York City and New York State authorities say.

As for those who return physically to the office, the source added, temperatures will be taken on entry, and the UN will provide protective gear, which must be used on premise — gloves and mask — when contact with others is unavoidable, like meetings or shared spaces. Apparently, planning has included a possible second wave of infection as well.

From the outset of the coronavirus crisis, there have been pushbacks within the UN, mostly from certain members of the Security Council, from working remotely. Russia still thinks that part of the work can be done in person starting in June. Dr. Farmer said she didn’t feel there was political pushback to her work during the pandemic.

“The politics of the United Nations in New York City are not always easy, but I am very pleased at the level of coordination between the UN, the diplomatic community and the City of New York,” she said.

After seven years spent at the UN, she is returning to Brisbane to a home, she said, “on 7 acres of beautiful bushland, with our very own kangaroos, koalas and kookaburras” and “is quite a contrast to my 580sq ft apartment in NY.”

*PassBlue is an independent, women-led journalism site that is considered the most influential media source covering the US-UN relationship, women’s issues, human rights, peacekeeping and other urgent global matters playing out in the UN. As a nonprofit news site, PassBlue is a project of the New School’s Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and 100+ individuals and a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News.