Amid the breathtaking landscape of Zimbabwe, a tale of dreams, struggles, and heartbreak unfolds as countless people set out in search of better opportunities abroad – some without requisite travel documents.
Among them are women, driven by the hope for greener pastures.
Too often, however, they embark on journeys that lead to mistreatment, exploitation, and even human trafficking.
Despite the harsh realities they face, returning home becomes an uphill battle, leaving them stranded in foreign lands and longing for help from their homeland.
Some have found their way to the Middle East, particularly in countries like Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait, with the hope of a brighter future. Some have been stranded in neighbouring countries such as South Africa and Botswana, while others have ventured as far as Tanzania before seeing dreams crumble, like a deck of cards.
Upon arrival in foreign lands, a large number of women, who would have travelled without adequate documentation or who do not have qualifications for professional jobs, often find themselves trapped in exploitative and abusive environments. Many are deceived by unscrupulous agents who promise lucrative employment but subject them to gruelling work hours, meagre wages, and deplorable living conditions.
Regrettably, some women are even trafficked into forced labour and suffer in silence due to fear and isolation.
Sarah Machekano, a resilient 36-year-old woman from Tengwe Village, 35 km south of Karoi in Hurungwe District, recently shared her chilling journey of being smuggled through the Kariba Border Post without a passport, only to find herself trapped in the clutches of exploitation in Tanzania.
Sarah, who like many women in her area, survived solely on vending and in some cases, subsistence farming, was desperate to begin a new life outside the country and earn a better living.
Six years ago, she thought her dreams had become reality when a stranger offered her what appeared to be a massive opportunity.
Women like Sarah, use the Kariba Border Post, which has temporarily closed, according to government communication in the wake of high traffic congestion being experienced at the port of entry which has stretched the current infrastructure beyond its capacity to handle cross-border traffic.
“They (traffickers posing as employment agents) approached me together with other women at our vending market in 2017. I was a vendor. One of the guys came to us and made his case known and promised stability, financial independence, and a chance to rebuild my life. Hope seemed to dangle right before my eyes,” she said.
Filled with hope, Sarah agreed to embark on this supposed journey to a brighter future. She was assured that she would be employed in a reputable job as a receptionist, with a monthly salary of US$1,000. This seemingly generous promise dazzled her and obscured the warning signs of the dark reality that awaited her.
Forced by the economic situation, Sarah agreed to the offer and together with her would-be traffickers, hitched a plan which would see her being picked up at a local bus stop in Karoi.
Finally arriving in Dar-es-Salaam Tanzania after a three-day journey, Sarah’s dreams of a brighter future were shattered.
Instead of the promised job and stability, she found herself ensnared in a world of exploitation and abuse. Isolated and stripped of her dignity.
For six months, she was employed as a housemaid for a middle-class family in the Tanzanian capital. Sarah recounts that she would be subjected to gruelling labour, enduring physical and emotional torment day after day.
Instead of a reputable job with a substantial salary, she was forced into an exploitative environment. The reality was a small, dingy room shared with several other victims, cramped and devoid of basic amenities.
The traffickers, who initially appeared as benevolent guides, transformed into ruthless controllers. They confiscated Sarah’s earnings, leaving her with meagre wages that barely covered her basic needs.
The conditions she encountered were abysmal, with no regard for her well-being or dignity. She was subjected to long working hours, often in hazardous conditions, without any respite or compensation. To make matters worse she was not allowed to leave the compound unattended, which made her movements limited.
Her dreams of financial stability were shattered as she became entangled in debt bondage.
The traffickers claimed that she owed exorbitant fees for her transportation and accommodation, further trapping her in a cycle of exploitation.
Sarah, however, lived to tell her story, when she managed to evade her captors. She had been allowed to go shopping in the Central Business District when she made good her escape after which she found well-wishers who facilitated her return home.
However, returning to Zimbabwe often proves to be an agonising ordeal for many women. Stripped of their passports and with limited financial resources, they are left with little recourse – the most viable being approaching the Zimbabwean embassy.
Zimbabwean Embassy: A Beacon of Hope
The Tanzanian embassy is one of the embassies which have found itself facilitating the return of several Zimbabweans, the majority women, back to the country.
In some cases, the stranded persons, would not be having travel documents after being trafficked, on the back of false promises.
In other cases, the so-called green grass would have become brown and unattractive.
Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Tanzania Retired Lieutenant General Anselem Sanyatwe confirmed the embassy has dealt with such cases.
“Too often, as an embassy, we have had to help people, women in particular, who find themselves stranded after their promised jobs do not materialise. Some people come to Tanzania looking for employment and one way or the other, they are given a raw deal, which puts them in harm’s way.
Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Tanzania Retired Lieutenant General Anselem Sanyatwe confirmed the embassy has dealt with such cases
“So, we intervene by providing them with Emergency Travelling Documents, which they then use to go back home and restart their lives,” the Ambassador said.
He added that despite Tanzania being a transit country for traffickers, it is not a trafficking destination due to the existing strict laws and vetting systems by the government.
“From my knowledge of Tanzania, there is little to no trafficking that happens in the country itself. We normally hold meetings with other Ambassadors discussing the situation in this country and the general consensus has always been that trafficking does not happen in the country serve for a few isolated cases but I’m told those have been dealt with,” he said.
Ambassador Sanyatwe, however, noted that there are some cases where some people have been caught lying about being trafficked after failing to get much-needed employment.
“This is not to dismiss some cases but we have dealt with people who are not honest about their situations. They come here with the hope of seeking and getting jobs but after they are duped or when they are not successful, they approach the embassy alleging that they were trafficked. After vetting and verification, we then realize that these individuals were just cooking up stories that will facilitate their return home,” he said.
He said despite the false reports, his office has been successful in its efforts to help stranded citizens.
Sanyatwe said due to cordial relations that exist between Zimbabwe and Tanzanian governments as well as cross-border transport operators – including bus companies – the victims are often put on buses so that they travel back home, free of charge.
Once in Zimbabwe, they find their way back home.
Sanyatwe said Sarah’s case was not in the embassy’s book, meaning she got assistance to travel home outside the embassy.
An Intricate and Complicated Syndicate
Traffickers operate within well-organized networks that involve not only truck drivers but also recruiters, middlemen, and corrupt officials.
This intricate system ensures the seamless movement of victims across borders, making it increasingly challenging for law enforcement agencies to dismantle these criminal operations. In many cases, those being trafficked will be in full agreement, after being promised jobs and better lives.
As a result, the cycle of exploitation persists, leaving countless lives shattered.
But for some, leaving Zimbabwe is their only option.
“I have no choice but to try my luck,” says Marcia Manatsa, a 32-year-old woman from Kariba, who lacks regular migration documents.
“I’m told that one needs at least US$30 to bribe border officials, and then they will allow you to enter into Zambia where you there are better opportunities. There are no jobs here, so I have to venture elsewhere to earn a living and support my family.”
The Human Toll
Behind the statistics and headlines lie the personal stories of trafficking survivors. Their resilience and determination to rebuild their lives after escaping this grim reality are both inspiring and heart-wrenching. Non-governmental organizations and support groups work tirelessly to provide victims with shelter, medical assistance, legal aid, and counselling, helping them regain their dignity and reintegrate into society.
Tariro Kaseke, a human rights advocate, views the porousness of border posts not only as a major concern but as a grave violation of human rights.
“Human trafficking thrives in the shadows of weak border control, allowing criminals to exploit vulnerable individuals, subjecting them to forced labour, sexual exploitation, and other forms of abuse. It is high time that the relevant authorities take decisive action to strengthen border security, enhance surveillance mechanisms, and provide comprehensive training to border officers. By doing so, we can disrupt the operations of human traffickers and protect the fundamental rights of every individual, regardless of their nationality or origin,” she asserts.
According to Sharon Sawana, a clinical psychologist, the immense stress and fear associated with being trafficked can lead to the development of depression. “Additionally, adverse living conditions such as unclean environments or overcrowded spaces can severely impact their overall health,” she explains.
“Furthermore, those trafficked for sexual exploitation are highly vulnerable to contracting various viruses and infections, which may result in long-term consequences. Moreover, due to the psychological impact of depression, individuals may turn to drug abuse as a means to seek solace or escape from their distressing circumstances.”
The US Department of State’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report on Zimbabwe reveals that for the second consecutive year, the nation ranks on the Tier 2 Watch List. This ranking signifies that “Zimbabwe does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.”
The report outlines reasons for this ranking, stating that the Zimbabwean government “did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period.
“Additionally, the authorities “did not amend its anti-trafficking law to criminalize all forms of trafficking” and failed to “identify any trafficking victims or provide care for victims in its designated shelter,” nor did they convict any human traffickers.
According to the United States Department of State, traffickers have exploited Zimbabwean women in domestic servitude, forced labour, and sex trafficking in Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Uganda.
After reports of numerous Zimbabwean women exploited in Oman in domestic servitude back in 2016, the government dispatched an investigative team to engage with the Oman government, identify additional victims, and facilitate repatriation.
The government subsequently repatriated dozens of Zimbabwean women who had been sold into slavery in Kuwait.
A report by the Zimbabwean and Oman migration authorities last year revealed that several Zimbabwean women were trapped in Oman where they are working as domestic workers under the Kafala visa sponsorship system, which ties workers to employers who bring them to Oman until their contracts end.
According to Zimbabwe’s ambassador to the United Arab of Emirates, Lovemore Mazemo, the women were allegedly being forced to work up to 18 hours a day, were underpaid, not allowed to leave the house, denied sufficient food and had their passports taken away
These agents work with sponsors in Oman who confiscate the women’s passports and force them to work for large extended families without adequate pay or rest. Some of the employers demand up to US$2 500 from the women in return for their freedom.
The government of Zimbabwe has taken some steps to combat human trafficking, such as investigating and prosecuting trafficking cases and conducting training for law enforcement, immigration officials, and other key anti-trafficking officials.
However, the US Department of State 2022 Trafficking In Persons Report suggests that the Zimbabwean government has not demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity.
The report further says the government has not amended its anti-trafficking law to criminalize all forms of trafficking in line with the 2000 UN TIP Protocol. The government has not identified any trafficking victims or provided care for victims in its designated shelter. The government has not convicted any traffickers.
Therefore, Zimbabwe remained on the Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year as per the TIP Report by the United States Department of State. This means that Zimbabwe does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.
The report says Zimbabwe needs to intensify its efforts to prevent human trafficking, protect its victims, and prosecute its perpetrators. It also needs to raise awareness among its citizens about the risks and realities of human trafficking and provide them with viable alternatives for economic empowerment and social development.
As Sarah says: “I wish I had known better. I wish I had never left my country. I wish I had never trusted those people who lied to me. I wish I had never gone through what I went through. But I am glad I am alive. I am glad I am free. I am glad I am home.”
Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi says the police have been receiving several reports of complicated syndicates that traffic people along the country’s borders.
He said security has been beefed up across all borders to reduce transnational crimes.
“To curb this scourge, we now have sniffer dogs which will work together with our security personnel to spruce out criminals at the borders,” he said.
“We urge members of the community to not accept job offers from people they do not know as this opens room for them to be manipulated. If anyone suspects that they are being trafficked, it is encouraged that they immediately alert the police or anyone nearby.
“The ZRP has a constitutional mandate to maintain law and order, to safeguard lives and property and above all to prevent, detect and investigate crime.”