The nexus between migration, human trafficking and COVID-19:

Experiences of Zimbabwean women survivors

In this blog, we focus on the situation of Zimbabwean women who have survived extreme human rights violations in the neighbouring country of South Africa as well as within Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s deteriorating economic situation and the need for citizens to be mobile

Zimbabwe has been the source of economic migrants for the past two decades owing to the economic decline characterising the country. The country’s economic crisis has driven both professional and non-professional workers to seek for greener pastures in the African region and beyond. Indeed, as more and more people desperately face economic and political disenfranchisement, crossing of borders has become imperative.  Within the African region, anecdotal evidence suggests that up to 2 million Zimbabweans are economic migrants in South Africa alone, without counting those in other African countries. Anecdotal evidence further shows that the majority of such migrants are undocumented given that people increasingly use unofficial channels to migrate.

Between a rock and a hard place?

Meanwhile, the prevailing economic woes worsened by the Covid-19 induced lockdown have seen citizens finding themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, limited economic opportunities within the country demand that citizens be mobile in order to be able to feed their families. Yet on the other hand, the threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the related preventative measures require citizens to socially distance and stay at home. Indeed, the year 2020 saw ten months passing with land borders closed to the passage of ordinary travellers, a situation that has had severe economic effects especially on cross border traders, who are predominantly women. It should be acknowledged that most households in Zimbabwe survive on income that they raise on that day and it is very difficult to talk of savings in this egregious economic environment. The pandemic has therefore compounded an already desperate situation resulting in people especially women and girls having to take more risks to cross the country’s borders using illegal crossing points.

Stranded Zimbabwean illegal immigrants arrested in South Africa

The interface between deplorable living conditions and bleak economic prospects at home juxtaposed with envisaged ‘greener pastures’ abroad in the era of COVID-19 as demonstrated in the clip above, creates a breeding ground for all sorts of human rights violation practices and exploitation which raise serious questions about the boundary between trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, as the experiences of especially women who cross the borders often mirror accounts of deception and exploitation but are not necessarily characterized by force or a loss of will.

Mobility and exploitation within the country

The data received from our NGO partners also shows that exploitation and vulnerability to human trafficking do not only occur when people cross borders, as the current socio-economic situation has also precipitated internal migration with similar exploitative impacts. In particular, rural to urban migration has increased significantly, especially among young people who in most cases are assisted by relatives and family friends in their endeavour to get employment in urban areas. Within the context of Ubuntu it is a cultural norm in Zimbabwe as in other places in Africa, for extended family members, especially those who are relatively wealthy to assume responsibility over relations’ children, especially by helping them get employment in urban areas.  However, it is also necessary to take note of the changes in norms, occurring as a result of changes in the socio-economic context, which is also the principal migration driver. The experiences narrated by some young people in the data that we received from our partner organisations point to the fact that the country’s prolonged economic crisis, in addition to driving out migration, has generated an environment that allows for individualism and the survival of the fittest, which increasingly see young people falling prey to all sorts of abuse and exploitation at the hands of trusted extended family members.

Identity of a trafficker and questions about freedom

The experiences of those trafficked across the border and those trafficked within the country are strikingly similar regardless of the environment in which they experienced sexual exploitation. Moreover, all the women spoke of deceptive agents and brokers, who happened to be trusted relatives and extended family members. 

This raises some serious questions about the identity of a trafficker and calls for a closer examination of the impact of Zimbabwe’s current economic situation on cultural norms and practices, in order to understand how human trafficking occurs within an ecology.  The presented cases further raise serious concerns regarding the rehabilitation of victims as well as questions of freedom. 

Following the high profile and highly publicised case of the Kuwait trafficked women in 2017, there has been a proliferation of policy and practical initiatives towards rescuing and rehabilitating victims of human trafficking in Zimbabwe. Indeed, some notable organisations are facilitating the repatriation of victims, with others offering rehabilitation programmes. However, in most cases the support that victims get ends at the point when they have undergone counselling programmes to deal with the emotional and psychological impacts and thereafter are expected to experience ‘freedom’ and reintegration into communities and carry on with life. 

What is often neglected is the reality that victims of human trafficking require a lot of support at both micro and macro level – not only the kind of interventions that target the trauma associated with exploitation, but also the poverty and economic deprivation that landed them into relationships of exploitation in the first place.