At the age of 15 and with no money for school shoes or a uniform, Linda* was forced to accept that her education was over and it was time to look for a job. In Lesotho’s southern Quthing District, where she lived, it is accepted wisdom that finding a job means crossing the border into South Africa, which completely surrounds this mountainous kingdom of 1.8 million people and dwarfs its tiny economy.
Linda’s own mother made the move five years ago and never returned. “I don’t know where she is,” said Linda, whose sister also lives in South Africa.
In May 2011, Linda was approached by a woman she knew from her village who had a business about 50km across the border in the town of Sterkspruit. “She invited me to come and stay with her and work for her as a shop assistant,” recalled Linda.
She did not question why she and her new employer had to cross a freezing river to enter South Africa instead of using the nearest border post, and for the first three months she was treated well enough and received a small salary. But when her employer abruptly left, putting a relative in charge of the shop, no more pay was forthcoming and Linda embarked on a relationship with the night watchman. By the time her sister arrived in December to bring her home, she was pregnant.
“I feel so sorry and angry,” said the girl, now eight-months pregnant and living with her ailing grandmother.
Four months after recruiting Linda, her employer returned to the village and met Mahleki*, another 15-year-old school dropout and orphan. This time she offered to help the girl attend school in South Africa.
“I didn’t really believe her,” said Mahleki, “but my brother forced me to go because he couldn’t look after me.”
After another river crossing, Mahleki was put on a bus to Rustenberg, a mining town in the country’s North West Province, and then taken to a tavern where she worked from 7am until midnight for the next seven months. In return she received two meals a day and a one-off payment of R350 ($42) to buy clothes.
In April of this year Maggie Monongoaha, a member of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service’s Child and Gender Protection Unit (CGPU) who happened to live in the same village as Mahleki and Linda, made a phone call to their recruiter demanding she send Mahleki home. The woman complied but remained in Rustenberg where she faces no legal charges.
What happened to Linda and Mahleki is not unusual in Lesotho but until recently, it is unlikely that anyone in their community or even local authorities would have identified them as victims of human trafficking, which the UN’s 2000 Palermo Protocol defines as: “the recruitment, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception… for the purpose of exploitation”.
Human trafficking survey
In 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs together with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) commissioned a rapid assessment of human trafficking in Lesotho to try to gauge the magnitude of the problem. The findings did not provide much in the way of hard data, but did highlight some of the conditions that have made the country particularly vulnerable to trafficking both internally from rural to urban areas and transnationally. These include Lesotho’s high levels of poverty and unemployment, the large number of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, and its porous borders and long tradition of migration to South Africa which began with Basotho men going to work in the mines.
The report noted that men, women and children are trafficked not only for sexual exploitation, but also for forced labour on farms, for cattle herding, construction work and domestic work.
In January 2011, the Lesotho government passed anti-trafficking legislation under pressure from the USA, an important donor which had placed Lesotho on its Tier 2 Watch List for countries not showing sufficient progress in combating human trafficking.
“It’s common knowledge that it was rushed through,” said Sonya Martinez, director of the Beautiful Dream Society (BDS), a faith-based US NGO which runs a shelter and transition programme for victims of human trafficking in Maseru, the capital. “The move to pass the law was very good, but training and infrastructure are lacking.”
Although the CPGU has been tasked with investigating trafficking cases, no budget has been allocated and training of its officers has so far been limited to Maseru. Of 40 cases reported in 2011, only one conviction was made under the new law and the offender was later released from a 15-year prison sentence after successfully appealing the verdict.
The recently released US State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report notes that the government has yet to complete a national action plan on human trafficking which would guide implementation of the new law, and that NGOs are the sole providers of protective services to victims.
NGO helps victims
Since opening its shelter in April 2011, BDS has helped 21 trafficking victims with trauma counselling, skills training and legal assistance, about half of them Basotho nationals and the rest Ethiopians, Zimbabweans and one Chinese. Martinez noted that the foreign victims were often more visible and tended to be perceived as more serious than the cases involving locals. “I believe there are many more local cases,” she said, adding that orphans and young people with a history of abuse or who were the sole breadwinners for their family were particularly vulnerable.
Martinez said the greatest barrier to prosecuting more traffickers is the lack of resources for the CPGU to travel to South Africa to investigate suspected cases and bring victims home. “Often nothing ever happens to the perpetrators in South Africa,” she told IRIN. “We’ve helped out with funding for rescues on a couple of occasions; the government hasn’t budgeted any funds for this.”
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Senior Superintendent and Head of the CGPU Mamojela Letsie said her unit relied on a good working relationship with the South African Police Service for tip-offs which had resulted in the rescue of several men from Quthing who were promised jobs in a factory but ended up “sold” to remote cattle posts.
However, a CPGU officer based in Mohale’s Hoek, about 50km north of Quthing, said that although his office sometimes received reports of locals promised employment in South Africa who ended up being exploited, it was difficult for them to follow up.
“For us at district level, it’s not yet clear how we can investigate cross-border cases,” he said.
At the level of prevention and awareness-raising, both the CPGU and the Ministry of Home Affairs are conducting campaigns in areas identified as high risk. NGOs including BDS, Lesotho Save the Children and World Vision are also targeting schoolchildren, border officials and radio listeners with information about the threat of human trafficking.
But Letsie admitted that most Basotho still do not know what human trafficking is. “Once people know, we think there’ll be many more cases,” she said.
*not their real names