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Forced labour, prostitution and child marriages: Rescuing victims of trafficking in Malawi

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Lunzu market in southern Malawi. WFP/Greg Barrow

The six men from Nepal believed they were heading to the United States for work. Instead, after a long journey which took them through six countries, they arrived in Malawi. They were locked in a house and their passports were taken away.

A husband and wife were offered lucrative jobs on a tobacco estate in neighbouring Zambia. Once there, they were treated badly, deprived of food and not paid at the end of their contract. 

But the job turned out to be very different from what they expected – they were forced into prostitution.
All these people were victims of human trafficking.  

Malawi: a transit country for trafficking

Malawi is also a transit country for victims of trafficking who are taken to other African countries, including South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique, and to parts of Europe.

“The Government of Malawi accepts that more needs to be done to tackle this crime and there are gaps in the current approach,” says Maxwell Matewere, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) National Project Officer on Trafficking in Persons. “It also appreciates the expertise that we can offer,” he adds.

Following a request from the Ministry of Homeland Security for support in the implementation of the national Trafficking in Persons Act, which was developed with the assistance of UNODC, Mr Matewere recently spent three weeks mentoring law enforcement officers.

“The on-site coaching took place in Blantyre, Phalombe and Mchinji. These are the regions of the country with the highest prevalence of trafficking,” he says.

During the sessions, the UNODC expert reviewed cases to establish whether the law enforcement and protection officers had followed the correct procedures.

Positive results

“We did discover that in many cases this had not happened, but it was encouraging to see the commitment of the participants,” says Maxwell Matewere. “They are all determined to improve on the areas of weakness we identified and learn from our expertise.”

Officials who are responsible for responding to human trafficking, investigating cases, supporting victims and prosecuting the perpetrators took part.

“I learnt about the required standards and procedures we must follow when providing assistance to the victims of trafficking,” explains Stephano Joseph, the District Social Welfare Officer for Blantyre. “So, I will follow these now in my work.”

Caleb Ng’ombo, Coordinator for the Blantyre District Inter-agency Committee against Trafficking in Persons, says there are a number of lessons he learnt during the mentoring including the significance of putting the needs and rights of the victims at the forefront.

“I heard about the importance of supporting the victims to minimize the risks of retraumatizing them, which can happen during criminal proceedings.”

Advice on ongoing cases was also provided, which has already led to positive results.

‘Basically working as slaves’

“I’m receiving reports from some participants who have managed to successfully and properly identify victims of trafficking based on the learnings from the mentorship,” says Mr. Matewere. “Based on the guidance I gave, 52 Malawian victims of human trafficking have been rescued and five suspects have been arrested. There are five different cases. Three of the cases of trafficking were detected during my coaching and with my technical support”.

“In the other two, the police were not sure if the people involved were actually victims of human trafficking.  I helped them with information how similar cases have been interpreted in other jurisdictions to confirm that they were indeed victims.”

“One case involves 28 victims of sexual exploitation. In another case, there are eight victims of forced labour. They were made to work on a farm for many months without any payment and also working for long hours. They were basically working as slaves. Six further people were rescued in transit to a destination where they would have been exploited in the commercial sex industry.”  

“The other two cases involve trafficking for forced or arranged marriage. One girl who was rescued is 13 and pregnant. She is now living in a shelter.  Other vulnerable victims are also in shelters, while others have been returned to their homes.”

Over the past two years, UNODC, through its Global Programme against Trafficking in Persons and with the support of the United Kingdom, has assisted Malawi in its efforts to combat human trafficking. 

National strategies have been strengthened, legal frameworks brought in line with international standards and the country’s system to assist and protect victims has been improved. 

The mentoring has had an immediate impact as the officials who took part are already using their newly acquired skills and knowledge.

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Human Rights

Urgent action needed to protect Vietnamese workers trafficked to Serbia

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Urgent action is required to assist and protect some 400 Vietnamese migrant workers who were allegedly trafficked to Serbia, experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council said on Friday. 

Eight companies, including Vietnamese labour recruitment agencies and Chinese construction firms registered in Serbia, have reportedly been implicated in serious human rights abuses, they said, citing information received.  

The experts have written to the businesses and are also in contact with authorities in the three countries.  

Appalling conditions 

“We are deeply concerned that these migrant workers may have been trafficked for purposes of forced labour, and have been living and working in appalling conditions in Serbia, at serious risk to their lives and health,” they said in a statement. 

They were also disturbed by allegations that civil society groups wanting to assist the workers have not been allowed access to them. 

The experts urged the Governments of Serbia, Viet Nam and China to ensure that businesses based in their territory, or operating under their jurisdiction, respect the human rights of all workers. 

“This includes not only the businesses who rely on migrant labour but also labour recruitment agencies,” they said. 

Duty to protect 

Regulation and monitoring of labour recruitment agencies is also critical to effectively prevent trafficking for the purposes of forced labour, they added. 

The experts reminded governments of their duty to protect against business-related human rights abuses. 

Countries must also take appropriate steps to ensure victims have access to justice and effective remedies, and to ensure ongoing assistance and protection, including against forced return. 

They also highlighted the obligations of businesses to exercise due diligence in ensuring that the rights of all workers are protected, without discrimination, recognising the particular needs and rights of migrant workers. 

Independent experts 

The eight human rights experts who issued the statement receive their mandates from the UN Human Rights Council, located in Geneva. 

They monitor and report on specific issues of global concern, which include trafficking in persons, contemporary forms of slavery, the human rights of migrants, and implementation of UN principles on business and human rights. 

The experts operate in their individual capacity and are neither UN staff nor are they paid for their work. 

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UNRWA condemns demolition of Palestinian home in East Jerusalem

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The Salhiyya family's personal belongings after the demolition of their home in East Jerusalem. © UNRWA

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Thursday urged Israeli to immediately halt all evictions and demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, after an entire family was forced out of their long-term home the previous day.  

Israeli police evicted the Salhiyya family from their two adjacent houses, according to news reports, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem early on Wednesday, and later tore down the structures – a move which UNRWA’s West Bank field office has condemned. 

Staff who visited the scene on Thursday morning observed the total destruction of the property, with school bags, clothes and family photos still partially visible beneath the rubble. 

Against international law 

“Under international humanitarian law, the forcible transfer of protected persons, as well as the destruction of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons by Israel, as the occupying power, is strictly forbidden, except where such measures would be rendered absolutely necessary by imperative military reasons, or for the security of the population under occupation,” the agency said. 

The 15-member Salhiyya family, who include an older woman and young child, had been living in Sheikh Jarrah for nearly 40 years, according to UNRWA.   

The neigbourhood and tensions surrounding evictions, and attempted evictions, was at the heart of brutal fighting that erupted last year in Gaza, between Israel and the militant group, Hamas. 

Arrests and injuries 

Israeli forces raided the two Salhiyya houses on the property, at 3am on Wednesday, while the family was sleeping.   

In a matter of hours the homes, as well as their possessions, were destroyed, UNRWA said, adding that Israeli forces injured several family members during the eviction operations. 

The head of the family, Mahmoud Salhiyya, along with other relatives, was also arrested.  Mr. Salhiyya had threatened to set himself on fire two days ago after Israeli forces demolished his business, located next door. 

Other families at risk 

UNRWA stated that sadly, cases like the Salhiyya’s are not unique as scores of Palestine refugee families in different areas of Sheikh Jarrah alone – over 200 persons, many of them children – currently face imminent threat of eviction.  

Across East Jerusalem, an estimated 218 Palestinian households are at risk of displacement by the Israeli authorities, the agency said, citing 2020 data from the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA

These households comprise some 970 people, including 424 children. 

UNRWA called on the Israeli authorities to abide by international law and, as the occupying power, to ensure the protection of Palestine refugees and civilians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.  

“All individuals have a right to safe and secure housing and to live in peace and dignity,” said the agency. 

Agencies call for release of seriously ill child 

In another development in the region, UNRWA and two other UN agencies are calling for the immediate release of a seriously ill Palestinian child detained in Israel. 

Amal Nakhleh, now 18, has been held without charge for more than a year, a measure known as administrative detention.  He has a rare neuromuscular disorder, according to media reports. 

Israel has extended his detention until 18 May, according to a statement issued on Thursday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UNRWA, and the UN human rights office, OHCHR

“Neither Amal nor his lawyers or family have been informed of the reasons for his arrest and detention. Amal suffers from a severe autoimmune disease that requires continuous medical treatment and monitoring,” they said. 

Not an isolated case 

The UN agencies called for his “immediate and unconditional release”, in line with international human rights law. 

This is not an isolated case, they added, as currently at least three Palestinians are in administrative detention who were under age 18 when they were first detained. 

“We echo the calls of the UN Secretary-General who in his Report on Children and Armed Conflict has, every year since 2015, urges Israel to end the administrative detention of children. This practice deprives children of their liberty and must immediately end.” 

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Human Rights

UNRWA seeks $1.6 billion to support Palestinian refugees in 2022

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A young girl takes part in UNRWA's Keeping Kids Cool summer activities in Gaza. © UNRWA 2021/Mohamed Hinnawi

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Tuesday appealed for $1.6 billion to support its lifesaving work this year amid acute regional crises and chronic funding shortfalls. 

UNRWA provides services and programmes, including education, health and food assistance, to more than five million Palestinians across the Middle East. 

The 2022 budget proposal includes additional emergency funding to address humanitarian needs arising from crises in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. 

‘Indispensable’ to stability 

Philippe Lazzarini, the agency’s Commissioner-General, said budget shortfalls pose a serious threat to its ability to maintain operations. 

“The international community recognizes the lifesaving role of UNRWA and its indispensable contribution to stability in the Middle East. It also recognizes how cost-efficient and agile UNRWA is. In 2022, that recognition must be supported by the adequate level of funding to meet this critical moment for Palestine refugees,” he said

The budget proposal comes as UNRWA confronts chronic funding gaps as needs keep rising. 

Distress and despair 

It is estimated that 2.3 million Palestinian refugees are living in poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten health and livelihoods. 

Distress and despair have become the norm among Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA.  Many, particularly in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, report that they are ready to use any means to try to migrate outside of the region. 

Breaking the cycle 

UNRWA has committed to investing in comprehensive programmatic reform and modernization to meet needs in an even more cost-effective and efficient manner.  

The agency said that being fully-funded across its full range of services, will assist its efforts towards breaking the cycle of despair among Palestinian refugees through measures such as providing some $31.2 million in microfinance loans and carrying out vital structural improvements to refugee camps. 

 “The amount that UNRWA is requesting for 2022 will directly contribute to the wellbeing of Palestine refugees, to efforts to combat and contain COVID-19 and to regional stability,” said Mr. Lazzarini. urging donors to step up. 

“The international community must give UNRWA sufficient and predictable funding so we may continue to provide Palestine refugees with a sense of security and normality they deserve.” 

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