- Save the Children-UK (SCF-UK) has raised the alarm over increasing numbers of Zimbabwean children illegally entering Mozambique to escape poverty at home.
Many are AIDS orphans or unaccompanied, hoping to find a better life in better-off neighbouring Mozambique. Instead they can fall prey to exploitation and abuse, including prostitution and child labour.
While the evil of child trafficking is well recognised, SCF-UK calls the voluntary migration of children a "hidden phenomenon" that can only be effectively tackled if the children themselves are consulted and involved in the response.
"If these children, some of them as young as 12 years, are able to cross a border illegally and survive on their own, then it doesn't make sense to exclude their opinions in programming on how best to serve their interests," said Chris McIvor, director of SCF-UK in Mozambique. "But they have not yet been given an adequate voice."
Although the exact numbers of Zimbabwean children crossing the Mozambican border each day is unknown, a study by SCF released on Wednesday pointed out that "large numbers of these children are alone and extremely vulnerable".
Zimbabwe is in its eighth year of economic decline, which has cut GDP by 40 percent. McIvor, however, noted that child migration was not a problem peculiar to Zimbabwe, but a growing issue in the southern African region.
"Mozambican children are entering South Africa illegally, Angolans are entering Namibia, and so on. When we have talked to these children, they say that they were not fully aware of what was going to face them in the countries. The children interviewed often thought they would earn money quickly," noted McIvor. The reality is that they often become trapped in a cycle of abuse and dependency.
The SCF study of Zimbabwean children found that many young girls - some aged as young as 12 - ended up in the sex trade along the transport corridor linking Zimbabwe to the Mozambican port of Beira in Sofala province. Sofala has the highest HIV infection rate in Mozambique, at around 26 percent of the adult population.
In a previous study, SCF found that young Zimbabwean sex workers living illegally in settlements along the Zambezi River in central Mozambique were popular with men because they were exploitable.
"Many Mozambican men tend to be sexually involved with Zimbabweans because they are cheaper," the report quoted a government official in the central Mozambican town of Machipanda as saying. "With 30 to 40 thousand Meticais [just over one US dollar], it is possible to have one afternoon or a night of pleasure."
Zimbabwean girls are also employed in barracas - informal, often rowdy bars - and in restaurants. The owners see English-speaking staff as a status symbol, said the report.
Children often find employment illegally on farms. Although the SCF study could not find a farmer ready to admit it, the provincial government in the central province of Manica confirmed that child labour occurred, with boys paid up to 900,000 Meticais (about 33 US dollars) a month for long, arduous work herding livestock or as farm hands.
SCF is looking to develop a range of school magazines and radio programmes targeting children, clearly spelling out what it means to travel to another country "without papers, family or friends to support them, and for them to know that the kind of problems they will face will be massive and grave", said McIvor.
SCF is also calling for police and border officials to be provided with additional training on children's rights and abuse laws.
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