Despite a recent government ban on labour export to the Middle East, agents in the trade continue to operate with impunity across the country, sending unsuspecting women and youths into horrible conditions in countries as far as war-torn Iraq.
Nation on Sunday investigations this week busted a human trafficking ring which is operating in Blantyre.
The investigations also tracked down another ring which has since gone underground, but left in its wake a harrowing story of destitute women currently stranded in Iraq.
The Blantyre-based agency (name withheld), poses as a clearing and shipping company, charging exorbitant fees to unsuspecting women and youths.
The agency, working underground to avoid coming under the official radar, has been sending women to the Middle East at a cost of K1 million each, according to figures the leader of the group sent to an undercover Nation on Sunday journalist who posed as potential client.
The breakdown was given as follows: K200 000 as an accommodation fee, K150 000 as an agency fee and K500 000 for an air ticket.
The operation is allegedly led by a man who runs a clearing and shipping company.
When confronted about the operations and its legality, the man claimed he was only helping relatives and not running a questionable agency.
The man, a Malawian, admitted sending friends and family members seeking greener pasture in Dubai and other countries. He said he only charges fees because the would-be migrants are requiring his services.
“People know that I am an experienced traveller and they ask for help. That is why I was asking you where you got my number from. I only help people who know me. I have an office, but I am only doing clearing and logistics for South Africa and Malawi,” he said.
But a close relative to somebody who recently went to Dubai said the agency is a scam that is exploiting many unsuspecting people.
“It’s cheating people. They make promises that people will get good jobs but it’s not true,” said a relative of a woman recently exported to Dubai by the Blantyre-based syndicate.
When our undercover journalist posed as wanting to send a relative to Dubai, using the syndicate, he was told that one of the requirements for making the trip was a mandatory HIV test, according to information on the Internet.
However, the journalist was only told to make the payments and the issue about HIV-testing was not talked about, increasing the risk that such migrants could be sent back upon arrival in the Gulf state.
But more syndicates may still be operating as the majority of their operatives were left scot-free.
According to one woman who was previously close to a Lilongwe syndicate that the police bust and was arrested before being acquitted in the Lilongwe Magistrate’s Court, the leader of her group, a Tanzanian she only identified as Tafiq, has never been apprehended.
In separate interviews, both Minister of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development Francis Kasaila and National Police Headquarters spokesperson James Kadadzera pledged to crack down on the agencies.
“We are saying report to us. Tell us who the guys doing this are and we will arrest them. This has been our appeal. Let anyone come forward who knows anything about how these men are operating,” said Kasaila.
Kadadzera said human trafficking is a serious crime and police will investigate the agencies for more information.
“It’s illegal and if we get more information, we will arrest such people. As police, we want people to come forward and report such activities. We are currently having programmes to sensitise the public on the need to report such crimes and we hope to fight such activities, partly through the vigilance of the general public,” Kadadzera added.
Nation on Sunday has identities of seven women still in Iraq, but will not reveal them.
In separate phone interviews, two of the women described living in prison-like conditions while suffering various other abuses.
The women claimed facing sexual, physical and verbal abuse, low pay, overwork and dehumanising, slavery-like working conditions.
According to one woman, who is originally from Lilongwe, the syndicated agencies running this human trafficking ring snatched their passports and visas on arrival in Iraq. They forbid them from owning cellphones and routinely beat them for even minor ‘indiscipline’.
She said the victims—comprising mostly Malawian Muslim women and in their early 20s, except the eldest in the group who is aged 44—were lured by the traffickers’ promise of a good life and quick riches.
According to the woman, who was still inside the home of her employer at the time of the interview, she was personally enticed by a Malawian woman based in Iraq and is used as the advertising point for the traffickers.
“She sends pictures of lavish lifestyles through WhatsApp. She takes pictures of huge stashes of cash, dollar bills. She dresses fancily and portrays that she is living a life we all could envy.
“She then tells you she can facilitate that you, too, should come over this side, and that’s how it all started,” said the woman, who until August 2017 worked as a shop assistant in Bwalo La Njobvu in Lilongwe.
She alleged that some of the women have been forced to have sex with the agency officials or their employers.
“One woman said her female boss asked to be massaged while she was naked. Another said a male boss ordered her just to strip for her,” said the woman.
She confessed being enticed on the journey to Iraq by a fellow Malawian based in Iraq, whom she names only as Zainab, “the one who sent beautiful pictures”. That journey was initiated after she was linked to the Malawian operation of the syndicate which then had an office complex in Lilongwe’s Area 3 Township.
The operation was housed in EBC House. When Nation on Sunday visited the complex, a man who was said to be running the operation, an alleged Zimbabwean named Konrad Kameta, could not be traced.
A receptionist at the building told Nation on Sunday there was no longer any travel agency or labour export agency housed within the building. She said she did not know the whereabouts of Kameta.
A second woman in Iraq corroborated the story, further recounting how the Malawian women were trafficked using unchartered routes.
According to the second woman, the alleged traffickers—who included Malawian, Zimbabwean and Iraqi nationals—took the women by road through Tete in Mozambique. Thereafter, they flew to South Africa, Egypt and onward to Iraq.
“I have been beaten while I was sick by both the employer and the boss [from the trafficking agency]. Our colleague was severely beaten and was left with a swollen lip. I work in two houses, with one salary,” said the woman.
She said the group is not paid cash, but a salary of $300 dollars is sent home to their parents. She added, however, that the salary transactions are not done consistently.
While searching for employers, or in between one job and another, the women are kept at a hostel, which has women from all over the world, she added.
A long way from home
Both Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesperson Rejoice Shumba and Malawi’s deputy ambassador in Kuwait (also accredited to Iraq) Allison Liwanda confirmed government was working on repatriating the women trapped in Iraq.
“I can confirm that the Malawi Government, through its Mission in Kuwait, which is also accredited to Iraq, is working closely with Iraq authorities to rescue and repatriate the Malawian women who are stranded in Erbil, Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region of Iraq. The Iraq authorities are very helpful and are cooperating in the efforts to rescue the women,” said Liwanda.
Shumba, on her part, confirmed that the number of the women government is seeking to repatriate was 12, but said the majority were still living with their employers.
According to a Malawian, who previously worked in the country for an international institution, Kurdistan region is a peaceful part of the largely war-torn Iraq.
“It’s where everybody who is running away from the militant Islamic State organisation, or other conflicts, runs to,” he said.
However, the worker notes that the population’s culture and language barriers could be proving a nightmare for young Malawian workers.
The labour exports industry was given an official endorsement in 2012 when former president Joyce Banda’s administration negotiated official deals with the some foreign governments and international labour agencies. That was seen as one way of providing employment opportunities to Malawians.
However, following harrowing stories by a majority of the participants, her successor Peter Mutharika-led government banned the exports.
Now, Malawi’s 2015 Human Trafficking Act prohibits human trafficking in any form and offences attract long prison sentences.
Meanwhile, some five women have just being released from what they describe as near-captivity following Malawi and Iraq government interventions, with several other women yet to attain their craving of returning home.