South Africa regional centre for human trafficking

South Africa is the regional centre of an intricate trafficking network that recruits women and children from Mozambique, Angola, Malawi, Thailand, China, Eastern Europe and even as far afield as the East Asian city of Macau, according to the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Trafficking in the region is conducted by four broad groups - organised crime, businesswomen, sex tourists and refugees, said IOM's Jonathan Martens in his presentation to a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The conference on 'The Next Steps to Path Breaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking', sponsored by a global coalition of NGOs called the War Against Trafficking Alliance and the South African National Prosecuting Authority, ends on Thursday.

About 1,000 Mozambicans are smuggled into South Africa every year, earning traffickers approximately one million rand (about US $159,223) annually, according to Martens. Trafficking figures for Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the region, were the only ones available for Southern Africa.

Mozambican women are recruited either through a "passive" or an "active" method by organised groups or minibus-taxi operators. The passive method targets female passengers already en route to South Africa. In the active method, traffickers offer women jobs as waitresses or sex workers in Johannesburg and charge R500 ($80) to smuggle them from the Mozambican capital, Maputo, through the Komatipoort or Ponta do Ouro border posts to South Africa.

"The women stay in transit houses along South Africa's border with Mozambique and Swaziland for a night, where they are sexually assaulted as an initiation. They are then smuggled into Johannesburg and are kept in safe houses in Soweto and Lenasia until they are sold to brothels in Gauteng or KwaZulu-Natal for R1,000 (about $160)," Martens said. The women are also sold as wives to South African men for R650 (about $104).

Malawian women are targeted by trafficking groups because they do not require a visa to enter the United Kingdom. Initial recruitment takes place through Malawian businesswomen, who are linked to the smuggling syndicates. Young women are lured by promises of job opportunities in Europe.

Upon arrival, as the IOM discovered in the Netherlands, the women are sold to brothel owners for $10,000, and told they must work as prostitutes to pay off their debts. "The initiation process involves a ritual used to threaten the women," Martens said. They are asked for underwear, hair or nail clippings and threatened with death by magic if they do not cooperate. The IOM discovered that some brothels even brand or tattoo the women.

European sex tourists recruit children in Malawi in the country's holiday resorts. "The tourists will often exert influence on the parents with expensive presents and promises of education and employment for their children in Europe," Martens said.

Recruited children feature in pornographic films, which are often shot in Malawi and shown on the internet. The children are then used as sex slaves in private homes or sold to paedophile rings. "During our study we did not come across any children who had returned or had maintained contact with their parents," Martens said.

Malawian businesswomen also recruit young women from rural areas and sell them across the borders to South Africa, while truck drivers lure them with promises of employment or marriage.

South African women, who work as strippers or sex workers, are recruited by Chinese trafficking rings who advertise similar jobs in Macau, a former Portuguese colony, promising earnings of between $10,000 and $20,000. The women are made to sign contracts written in Chinese characters and then smuggled through Hong Kong to Macau, where they are sold to massage parlours for $500.

"The traffickers impose an escalating debt burden, running into several thousands of dollars. The women are fed once a day, denied access to a telephone, and have no contact with the outside world," Martens said.

In South Africa, Thai and Chinese groups recruit women from their home countries with promises of jobs in restaurants, or an unrealistic picture of the money to be earned in sex work. The women are flown to neighbouring countries and smuggled in to South Africa by land, where they are forced to work 15 to 16 hours a day. Their escalating debt burden usually ranges from $7,500 to $12,500.

The Russian and Bulgarian mafia traffic Russian and East European women on fraudulent South Africa visas after luring them with similar job offers. "These women are often well educated. Once they get here, debt burdens of $12,000 to $15,000 are imposed on them," Martens said. If the women refuse, their families are often threatened with violence.

"Refugees are both victims and perpetrators of trafficking in South Africa - they are unemployed and choose to recruit female relatives (aged from 25 to 45) from their countries of origin to South Africa," said Martens.

The refugees are predominantly from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Ethiopia, and have as associates members of the same clan. These associates act as couriers, delivering the letter of invitation to the female relative and sexually assaulting her as an initiation in to sex work.

"This is a small-scale operation - a refugee will take on only one woman. She is not allowed to go home until she has made R250 for the day," Martens said.

The IOM launched the Southern African Counter-Trafficking Assistance Programme (SACTAP) in January this year. The programme is aimed at assisting trafficked persons with care and support for a three-month period, including the option to return to their homes. SACTAP expects to be expanded fully into the Southern African region next year.