Lies, damned lies and statistics: Unravelling South Africa’s child trafficking conundrum

by | Child Protection Legislation & Child Rights, Missing and Trafficked Children

In modern society there are few things as truly evil as human trafficking, especially when it involves children, and Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba’s argument for those afflicted by the scourge is compelling. But his supposed solution has once again been called into question along with the statistical basis for the plan. It begs the question that if the minister’s strategy is really about solving South Africa’s child trafficking problem why, in a style reminiscent of ‘Saving Private Ryan’, is he willing to risk the lives and livelihoods of many for the sake of the ones and twos. While it is difficult to ignore the fervour with which he speaks, it is equally difficult to avoid the sense that his department is playing an elaborate game of Top Trumps with stakes that are appallingly high. Beyond the oratory, what does the research say about how to prevent trafficking?

The announcement by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa this week that he will lead an inter-ministerial committee that will investigate the negative effects of the country’s stringent new visa regulations is a welcome admission that the plan, implemented under the guise of halting child trafficking, is deeply flawed.

It was more than 100 years ago that Mark Twain popularised the saying: “there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” The quote dates back to a time when government could use numbers, good, bad or indifferent to “beguile” (Twain’s word) the general populace into accepting policy.

That was a different era but even now in our Google-enabled world, the government knows there is something deeply soothing about a good solid statistic, especially when it is used in defence of a controversial or challenging scheme. Take, for example, Home Affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni’s briefing to Parliament a month before Home Affairs’ controversial visa regulations were applied.

In his report, he claimed an estimated 30,000 children, 50% of whom are under 14, are trafficked through South Africa every year, and that the new regulations would protect those children from trafficking. While 30,000 is a number that is difficult to dispute, it appears to be one that is even harder to defend. Most recently and most alarmingly, it was publicly queried by a fellow cabinet minister.

Not that this is a new development. It appears that the statistic was never verifiable and has been challenged by AfricaCheck from the moment it was first quoted almost two years ago. Given the extraordinary impact of the new visa regulations, this should be sending shock waves through Home Affairs. But Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba’s response has been telling. He hasn’t addressed the statistic. Instead he went before Parliament and described 23 incidences of child trafficking from 2012 until the present.

It is a breathtaking discrepancy, one you might imagine the minister would be scrambling to justify. But nothing could be further from the truth. Gigaba has gone on the offensive. In a blistering and eloquent comeback to the criticism, he referred to best practice, projected future success, contrasted greedy, profit-driven business with the lives of the vulnerable, personalised the policy by referring to specific families and then in an emotionally charged coup de grâce, stated: “We reject, with contempt, the notion that there must be a threshold of children trafficked first before we put in measures to prevent trafficking … even if there was one child that was a victim of trafficking, that is one child too many.”

There is no doubt that Gigaba is a fine orator and the zeal of his statement is persuasive. His argument articulates a passion cherished by charities and nongovernmental organisations working with children across the globe. But this is not the policy statement of a charity, it is politics – the apparent defence of a strategy affecting not only a nation but any child under 18 attempting to cross our borders (which in 2014 alone amounted to about 2.7-million children). Taking a step back we should be dismayed by Gigaba’s descent from research-based evidence into rhetoric, and stunned by the outrageousness of his refusal to commit to measurement.

And herein lies the problem: by linking this controversial strategy to an emotional issue like child trafficking, Gigaba seems to be implying that it is now beyond question. It comes across a bit like a game of Top Trumps, where the person holding the child trafficking card wins, regardless.

From a child protection advocate’s perspective, Gigaba’s position is problematic for a number of reasons:

Firstly, it belies the fact that every child protection strategy has to be weighed in terms of cost versus benefit. It is hard to argue with Gigaba’s assertion that one child trafficked is one child too many but the moral high ground cannot be the basis for national policy. Home Affairs’ visa strategy is astonishingly costly in terms of resources, the cost to the economy (especially if Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom is correct about the effect on tourism) and, ultimately, because you cannot honestly depersonalise the tourism industry even for the sake of a good argument, in terms of job losses and the impact on all affected families.

If the regulations could save 30 000 lives a year this would be a different article. But, in the absence of a sound research-based commitment to numbers, this comes across like a Saving Private Ryan” scheme where the many are sacrificed for the sake of the ones and twos.

If this strategy is actually in the service of child protection then, given the extent of the problems facing our children and the dearth of effective child protection strategies (to put it delicately), surely the money could be spent more beneficially.

Secondly, the policy is not supported by research. From the outset, anti-trafficking groups rejected a border control policy as the best option for curbing child trafficking. In an AfricaCheck fact sheet on the new regulations, human rights attorneys Liesl Muller and Patricia Erasmus stressed that “real human traffickers … cross the border in illegitimate and clandestine circumstances”, adding that “the regulations won’t prevent this”. In addition, advocacy experts agree that controlling ingress and egress is not a substitute for meaningful interventions to stop our most vulnerable children being targets in the first place.

The United Nations protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children states that “states parties shall take or strengthen measures … to alleviate the factors that make persons, especially women and children, vulnerable to trafficking, such as poverty, underdevelopment and lack of equal opportunity”.

This should be of major area of concern in South Africa where more than 11.5-million of our approximately 18.6-million children receive a poverty alleviation grant. In addition, our country has a staggering number of orphans. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund definition of an orphan (which includes children who have lost one or both parents) South Africa has an estimated 3.5-million orphans, which could in fact be as many as 5.5-million depending on which statistic you believe.

Orphans are so defined because historically these children are the ones most vulnerable to abuse, poverty and trafficking, and in South Africa the government’s strategy for managing these children may make them even more vulnerable.

The world over, adoption is seen as an optimal way of caring for our most vulnerable children. But in South Africa, the government still favours raising orphans in kinship care, foster care or even child-headed households. This, despite massive changes to our society resulting from poverty and HIV/Aids which have led to the tragic breakdown of the traditional societal structures that cared for orphans in the past.

Even those children in the foster care system cannot be effectively supervised because of the huge volumes of cases and the lack of social workers. The Department of Social Development itself has described the social service workforce available to implement the Children’s Act as “incomplete, underdeveloped and ill-funded”. The bleak implication is that many of these children are unparented and unmonitored, and are therefore unaccounted for on any given day.

As such, they are prime targets for trafficking. And yet, notwithstanding this, the government remains resolutely anti-adoption. So much so that when annual adoption figures were released in March this year and Department of Social Development spokeswoman Lumka Oliphant was challenged on the 50% drop in adoption rates over the last 10 years, she replied by linking adoption to commercial gain and implying that adoptive parents were buying babies: Our babies are not up for sale,” she said.

In hindsight, it looks like a worrying precedent, a similar use of child trafficking to justify a controversial policy. At the time, the media hit back challenging her to verify her claims. To date neither she nor the social development minister has responded, nor has the department addressed concerns raised at the time about how its “at all costs” pursuit of alternatives to adoption is placing children at risk.

In the absence of any research or evidence to the contrary, we have to conclude that adoption is not facilitating trafficking. On the contrary, by counteracting poverty and the vulnerability that comes from being unparented, it may be one of the few child protection strategies that is actually working — effectively making children less susceptible to trafficking.

So perhaps it is ironic (or perhaps not), that one of the other “unintended” consequences of the visa regulations is that they have made the almost impossible process of adopting in South Africa even more torturous. I speak from personal experience. My husband and I are both South African citizens and there was nothing unusual about our adoption process. But, although my daughter was five months old when we adopted her in 2012, we only received her unabridged birth certificate after she turned three.

The department undertakes to deliver unabridged birth certificates in six to eight weeks but the complexity of producing them for adopted children, coupled with the increased volumes of applications as a result of the new regulations, means adoptive families typically report a 12-month wait for their child’s unabridged birth certificate. Mercifully, the National Adoption Coalition negotiated an 11th hour reprieve allowing adoptive families to travel on an adoption order which prevented international adoption from grinding to a halt while families languished in South Africa for interminable periods, and freed grounded South African families.

But as with every adoption-related procedure in South Africa, the application of this depends on the official applying it. So far, no adoptive families have been prevented from leaving the country on an adoption order, but some have been stopped and interrogated on their way out. And frustratingly for those still waiting, no unabridged birth certificate means no application for school or social grants, compromised medical care and no visas from certain countries.

In the last six months the government has used child trafficking twice to justify controversial policies and while Gigaba undoubtedly did so with conviction, we cannot accept emotion as a basis for policy — there is too much at stake. If the government does indeed want to champion the most vulnerable, it would do well to consult those who do so daily, and perhaps spend its money on less prominent but more effective research-based strategies, particularly those that can be proven to work.

Ultimately, we have to get beyond myth and manipulation and make decisions based on verifiable evidence — behind the politics are millions of real lives that depend on it. DM

First published in the Daily Maverick: 14.08.2015

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