When Child Traffickers Operate Under The Guise Of Charity

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a crackdown on trafficking rings is not enough - there is also the question of parental responsbility. And extreme poverty.

In the DRC, the most vulnerable
In the DRC, the most vulnerable
Alphonse Nekwa Makwala

KINSHASA Clandestine networks describing themselves as charities or claiming connections with churches have been tricking Congolese parents into releasing children into their care, only to sell the young victims as sex slaves or unpaid workers.

The information comes in a finding by a parliamentary commissionin in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). “Several teenage girls were taken to Lebanon to become sex slaves and be used for other types of dirty work,” says parliament member Benjamin Mukulungu, who estimates that between 500 and 1,000 children are still thought to be there.

According to the Global Forum of Francophone Women, which first spoke out against these networks and helped repatriate five victims, these young women are recruited in Kinshasa, DRC’s capital, by an agency that promises them decent jobs in Lebanon. The girls are attracted by the prospect of working in hospitals or in supermarkets where they are told they can earn $2,500 a month.

But there is none of that once they reach Lebanon. Instead, they are sold to local families who shamelessly exploit them. Inside the DRC, some networks, hidden behind the titles of international charitable NGOs, lie to the parents by saying that they will take care of their children’s future, so as to convince them to let their sons and daughters go.

But once they reach their destination, the tutors become torturers.

Such was the case of five boys, between 10 and 13 years old, who were rescued from their persecutors. The boys, who had to stay in the hospital for several months after they were rescued, were kidnapped three years ago in the southwestern city of Tshikapa.

“I was taken by force by a man we called ‘Happiness Daddy’ while I was in the church where my dad helps. That man promised me that white people would take the greatest care of me. In Kinshasa, he taught me how to steal and how to be a porter,” the boy recalls.

“They would beat us up if we didn’t steal and if we didn’t carry the bags of merchants and clients at the market,” says another child, showing his sprained arm. He claims that he once stole as much as $10,000. But when one of them refused to take cannabis, a dispute erupted, thus alerting the police, who were then able to identify the child-trafficking network.

Police contacted one of the parents once the boys were found. When he heard the news, the dad couldn’t believe his ears. “We hadn’t seen him in three years, so we had already accepted he was dead,” he recalls.

A common scourge

Child trafficking has become common in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last August, police apprehended a 45-year-old man in Kamako. He was preparing to send two 12-year-old girls to Angola. He admitted to the facts in court and said that in June he sold two girls, ages 13 and 14, in Angola for $600 each. The trafficking of young girls is widespread in Tshela, a territory close to the Angola border.

Protecting the innocent (photo: Steve Evans)

There are also cases in which parents entrust their children to people who claim to work for NGOs. In November, 13 children aged between 1 and 10 years old were rescued in Masina (near the capital of Kinshasa) in the house of people who said they worked for a charity. The suspects had promised the parents they would send the children to school.

“The kids had yellowish hair and their bellies were swollen by kwashiorkor,” or malnutrition, explains Willy Makiashi, an elected representative from Gungu — a town in the Bandundu Province — who took part in the search for the children.

In April 2012, one of these NGOs was alleged to have taken 15 children between ages six and eight from their hometown of Seke-Banza in the western part of the country. “These people told the parents that their kids would be sent to the United States, where they would be taken care of, and they offered them money in exchange,” says a doctor from Seke-Banza’s hospital.

“The sanctions against parents who entrust their children to someone else must be drastic,” says child advocate Julie Lungu. “The government must both open more courts for children and reinforce the law to better protect children’s rights.”

Mado Mpezo, captain of a police section specializing in the protection of children and women, urges parents “to be more vigilant and more responsible.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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