By Christine Yohannes
ADDIS ABABA, 29 June 2016–One year ago, 14-year-old Tesfaye* set off from his hometown of Hadiya in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region of Ethiopia towards South Africa. Like many young people, Tesfaye sought what he thought would be a brighter future abroad.
Unfortunately for Tesfaye, his journey came to an abrupt halt after one month when he was arrested in Zambia. Along with 39 other Ethiopian children, he was charged under the Anti-Human Trafficking Act that prescribes a minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years for smuggling or consenting to be smuggled.
Although he was not yet 15 at the time, Tesfaye was tried as a 23-year-old because of the eight-year difference between Gregorian calendar used in most of the world, including Zambia, and the Julian calendar used in Ethiopia. Tesfaye was unable to explain the situation due to his limited English and was subsequently convicted and jailed in Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison in Kabwe, which houses adult criminal offenders,along with other children who had been detained.
A long journey
In response to news of this detainment, UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) worked together with the Zambian Human Rights Commission and Zambian officials to get the children released from prison and sent home. Following high level advocacy and personal commitment from IOM and UNICEF staff members, all 39 children were pardoned by the Zambian President.
IOM Zambia provided support to the Zambian authorities to ensure that protection assistance, including safe shelter and medical assistance was provided to all children once they were released from prison. Their first stop for these children once in Ethiopia is the IOM Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) Transit Centre, which is operated in close collaboration with UNICEF and the Government of Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa. The centre receives some 100 to 200 unaccompanied minors every month who have returned from other transit or destination countries.
UNICEF supports the Ethiopian Bureau of Women and Children Affairs with trained social workers to conduct documentation, family identification and reunification of the children. The social workers provide psychosocial support services at the transit center and accompany the children to their families, where they also provide a reunification grant to each child’s family.
Although Tesfaye is now safe in the IOM Transit Centre, he will not soon forget the ordeal he went through. He says, “I want to teach and raise awareness for others that might try to do this,” adding, “It should stop with me!”
Dreams cut short
Jacky* 17, also from Hadiya, was a straight-A student with big dreams for his future when he left home in search of better opportunities. “I do not blame my country for my decision to leave and for trying my luck in South Africa,” he says.
He recalls 25 days of travelling on foot, his subsequent arrest and confinement in a prison room shared with over 200 other detainees, going days without food and enduring brutality and theft.
“I sold my cow and my inherited share of my father’s land to pay for my trip, only to be arrested a 120km from my destination,” said Jacky. “I had high hopes for my future in South Africa but being exposed to deadly diseases in prison made me realize that it is worth striving for a better life in my own country.”
Home at last
Harrowing as their stories are, at least Tesfaye and Jacky are home at last. Some children remain in Kabwe as they had come of age while in prison. The Zambian Human Rights Commission , with support from UNICEFand IOM, continues to work to enable the release of these children and their return to Ethiopia.
Going forward, UNICEF, in partnership with IOM, will support the Child Justice Forum and the Zambian Human Rights Commission to prevent this from happening to other children in the future. UNICEF will also extend its support by monitoring prisons and police cells to identify and help children in similar situations as there are reports of more smuggled and trafficked children; eight more children await trial on a similar accusation.
“I cannot say I have come [home] when half of me [more children] is still in prison” Jacky continued “ I have learned from my mistakes, so I would like to teach everyone about creating jobs in our lands.”
*Names of the children have been changed to protect their privacy