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Children left at home pay the price of migration

[Zimbabwe] Many students are unable to afford the school fee hike.
Who will stand in front of the class? (UNICEF Zimbabwe)

Jane, 12, was left in the care of a long-time family friend by her mother when she left for England to work as a maid seven years ago. Jane has not seen her mother since, but in that time the child has tried to commit suicide twice and has been raped eight times by her foster mother's former partner.

She is one of thousands of children left in the care of family or friends by parents going in search of work in other countries as a consequence of Zimbabwe's seven year recession, which has created an unemployment rate of 80 percent and an annual inflation rate of more than 3,700 percent - the highest in the world.

More than a quarter of the population are believed to have left in the past few years for neighbouring countries like South Africa and Botswana, or further afield for the United States, England, Europe and Australia.

''Sadly, that was not to be, because my former lover took advantage of my trust in him and raped the girl from a tender age''

"Jane's mother preferred me ahead of her own poor parents or sisters because she felt that since I have a well-paying job and live in an affluent suburb her child's welfare would be guaranteed. Sadly, that was not to be, because my former lover took advantage of my trust in him and raped the girl from a tender age," the family friend, who declined to be named, told IRIN.

"What is even more painful is that I am finding it difficult to inform her mother because I know, having been granted asylum there, she cannot return to see her only child," said Jane's caregiver, who works for a local nongovernmental organisation (NGO) and often travels out of the country.

"On the other hand, Jane cannot join her mother because there is no-one to process the papers, since the father is denying paternity."

The diaspora

"Obviously, when parents leave their children behind, particularly in these difficult times where there is need to cushion families against poverty, that increases the offspring's vulnerability," James Elder, the Zimbabwe spokesman for the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN.

"But the issue of parents trekking to the diaspora [a term used to describe the large-scale emigration from Zimbabwe] without their children is part of the bigger problem," Elder said, "where millions of children are vulnerable because they don't have food, clothing, shelter, or fail to attend school."

Betty Makoni, director of Girl Child Network (GCN), an NGO advocating the protection of girls from abuse, said the "horrific trend" of parents leaving their children, in some cases newborn babies, to search for employment in other countries had increased the vulnerability of children to such a degree that one in every 10 cases of reported child abuse concerned a child whose parents had left the country.

"Thousands of children are now vulnerable because of the economic crisis that hit the country from 2000, when parents, anxious to make things better, did not have a choice but to surrender custody of their offspring to all sorts of people, ranging from old grandparents, sisters and brothers to untrustworthy friends and abusive spouses," Makoni told IRIN.

A report by the Global Poverty Research Group in 2006, 'Remittances, Poverty Reduction and the Informalisation of Household Well-being in Zimbabwe', revealed that 50 percent of migrants to South Africa and Botswana were most likely to return home once a year, but only 22 percent of those in England would do so.

While long absences tended to worsen the children's plight, Makoni said even short periods away did not guarantee their welfare "because abuse, especially of a sexual or physical nature, can take place in a matter of minutes".

The absence of parents had negative psychological effects on children, manifested in the loss of concentration at school, particularly among elder siblings given the responsibility of heading the family.

Makoni said GCN had dealt with many cases in which fathers had sexually abused their children or failed to adequately fend for them, choosing instead to squander money remitted by their wives on beer and women.

Child trafficking

The separation of children from their parents was also creating a window of opportunity for child traffickers, who offered assistance to parents attempting to bring their children to the country they had settled in.

In one such case, the GCN told IRIN, parents living in England had advised their daughter, Kirsty, 17, (not her real name), to travel to Malawi and contact a male citizen who had told the parents he would be able to organise a Malawian passport for her. Malawian passports are viewed as better travel documents for England, as the visa requirements are less stringent than for Zimbabweans.

On arrival in Malawi, with no accommodation and little money, Kirsty was taken to a brothel and immediately put to work as a sex worker. She was told that "sleeping with his influential clients" was a precondition for securing a fraudulent travel document. The man also took the money Kirsty earned.

Abuse of remittances

Money remitted to family members at home by the mass exodus of more than three million people has become a lynchpin of Zimbabwe's rapidly declining economy.

"Evidence from household surveying in 2005 and 2006 in Harare and Bulawayo [Zimbabwe's second city] indicates that a network of international migrant remitters are ameliorating the economic crisis in Zimbabwe by sending monetary and in-kind transfers to over 50 percent of urban households," said a research paper authored by Lloyd Sachikonye, of the University of Zimbabwe, and Sarah Bracking, of Manchester University, presented at the 'Living on Margins' conference earlier this year in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

''These children, when they receive the money, go to change it on the black market, thereby learning the dynamics of illegal transactions at an early age''

"In a situation of hyperinflation and of parallel exchange rates that are [far higher] than the official rates, and a very stressed economy, remittances have become even more crucial" and there are few, "if any, similar contemporary examples of a country whose quarter of its population has left in order to fend for its living."

While the majority of parents remit as much money as they can to their children's caregivers, there are no guarantees the money will be used to the child's benefit.

"The mistake the parents make is to think that sending back money and making the occasional phone call is all they have to do. Little do they know that they are introducing the children to a life of immorality and criminality," Makoni said.

"These children, when they receive the money, go to change it on the black market, thereby learning the dynamics of illegal transactions at an early age."

The official exchange rate for the Zimbabwean dollar is US$1 to Z$250, while on the parallel market US$1 costs Z$60,000.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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