It is about 7:30pm; Solange Murekatete (not real name), a senior six student boards a taxi in Kigali to go home. Next to her sits a man, who welcomes her with a smile like they knew each other.
Hi! Says the man; hi! She responds. Are you headed to Nyamirambo (not real place), he asks.
Yes, she replies. The conversation continued with the man asking the girl lots of things ranging from personal to family life, and before long, the two had already built a kind of bond and one little thing made this happen–in Zambia.
In just a 30-minute journey, they had agreed on a one man’s terms; first the man gave Murekatete a Simcard on which they would communicate and discouraged her from telling parents about the whole mission.
He convinced the girl how this was a well-paying job, how it will change her life and that of her poor family and how he would cater for all the expenses including securing a passport, transport fare, feeding and accommodation; little did she know that she would soon be a victim of human trafficking.
Before she realised the fate of slavery and misery that awaited her, she was already at the Zambian border after travelling through Tanzania and Uganda, on her way to the purported job in Zambia.
While at the Zambian border, the man bluntly told her that he was actually not going to get her a job but rather, he intended to make her his wife. She was then forcebly transported to the capital Lusaka through a bus terminal.
“When I told him that I was not ready for marriage, he confiscated my passport and threatened to hurt me and that no one would know. He told me that I owed him all the money he had spent on me for the journey,” Murekatete says.
Luckily enough, Murekatete had earlier followed her instincts that she was headed to danger and at this point she had already contacted her parents back home, who also promptly alerted Rwanda National Police (RNP). Interpol Kigali had already contacted their counterparts in Lusaka. She was rescued shortly after.
Murekatete is among young Rwandans that have fallen victim to human trafficking, although some don’t get a chance to reach out to their people for help.
Human trafficking is a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
It is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion for the purposes of exploitation.
Exploitation include, at a minimum, forcing others into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.
Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, both within their countries and abroad. Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims.
Globally, 27 million people are said to be in modern-day slavery while about 800, 000 people are trafficked across international borders annually. About one million children are exploited by the commercial sex industry every year, 80 per cent of victims being women and girls while 70 per cent of female victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation.
In Rwanda, although not a common phenomenon, human trafficking has become a problem, says Assistant Commissioner of Police Tony Kuramba, Commissioner for Interpol in RNP.
“In most cases, Rwanda is used as a transit route, but we have also received cases of Rwandans, especially girls, who have fallen victims. Five girls have been returned to Rwanda in the last two months and more are yet to arrive, mainly from Asian countries,” adds ACP Kuramba.
“We have handled over 36 cases involving 153 victims since 2009, including 51 Bangladeshis intercepted in Kigali while on transit to Mozambique in 2009; 90 per cent of the victims are females with 82 per cent of them aged between 18 and 35,” he noted.
In February 2012, three Rwandan girls were rescued from Uganda and the suspect arrested. Seven others were rescued a year later–also in Uganda.
“In September, 2014, we intercepted a Ugandan girl at Kigali International Airport as she was being trafficked to Dubai,” Kuramba explained.
Police earlier this month arrested two Rwandan nationals suspected to be involved in human trafficking. They were attempting to traffic three females to Nairobi, Kenya under the disguise of good jobs.
Most victims, he explained, are taken to Asian countries like Malaysia and China, Middle East, Southern Africa and East Africa.
He noted that this act is facilitated largely by the ignorance of victims who are manipulated by traffickers not to reveal any information to anyone promising them better offers, porous borders, and insufficient information or evidence.
But there is also still a challenge of cooperation among countries in dealing with the vice jointly.
Strategies to combat the vice
Kuramba said they have enhanced community awareness and sensitisation programmes through media, community meetings, schools and faith-based organisations and strengthened partnership among national stakeholders.
“We are also engaging Police forces in the region and globally to supplement efforts to identify and rescue other victims, but also break trafficking rings,” he said.
RNP has already extended the international Police organisation – Interpol’s – communication system called I-24/7 to all border posts, which Kuramba believes will help gather information on victims and culprits.
The tool connects all law enforcement agencies in Interpol member countries and allows investigators access to Interpol’s criminal database to search and cross check data on suspected criminals or wanted persons, stolen and lost travel documents, stolen motor vehicles, fingerprints, DNA profiles, stolen administrative documents and stolen works of art.
“We are also building investigation capacity of officers and the decentralisation of Isange One Stop Centre will also support in medical, rehabilitation and ensuring justice, at no cost, for the victims.”
Fifteen Police officers from the National Central Bureau (NCB) Kigali, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Crime Intelligence, early this month completed a ‘Training of Trainers (ToT)’ under ‘Smuggling Training and Operations Programme (STOP)’, who will in turn spearhead training of their colleagues in border security management systems, especially against smuggling and human trafficking.
“There are also existing policies and programmes, including legal frameworks and reform and the ongoing global campaign called ‘Turn Back Crime’ which seeks to raise awareness of the nature of organised crimes with the ultimate goal of driving a cross-border response to the issues and support the global police community in making the world a safer place.”
Last year, President Paul Kagame said ending trafficking of girls should go beyond law enforcement authorities and be the responsibility of every citizen noting that “people are not commercial goods.”
The Head of State emphasised that a “human being is not an item that should be sold on the market. How does even that exist? As Rwandans, we have to address this issue…people are not created to be sold--no, it is wrong.”
A high level national dialogue on trafficking in human beings was held in October last year where the First Lady, Jeannette Kagame, said there should be an understanding on these issues, their consequences, and establish joint institutional and parental roles to fight them.
Human trafficking, under articles 250 to 272 of the Rwanda penal code, is punishable with a sentence between seven and ten years and fine of Rwf5 million to Rwf10 million.
If it is done at the international level, the sentence ranges between ten and 15 years and a fine of Rwf10 million to Rwf20 million.