Who is behind human trafficking in Rwanda? Is there an organised gang? Should citizens worry about it?
These are some of the questions the public was asking last week, when 28 people, including a family with children who are as young as one-year and the oldest being 50 years, were rescued on their way to Australia via Burundi.
“We had been told by the one who was taking us that there was an easier way of getting a visa from Burundi, but when we reached there we got stuck for two months until when we decided to return and we were received by officials from immigration at the border,” said Julienne Kamariza, one of the victims.
This is the highest number of people to be paraded by the country’s security organs as having been smuggled out of the country for a common destination, highlighting traffickers’ sophisticated methods.
The police, while ruling out the existence of an organised group carrying out systematic recruitment, blame mushrooming churches for escalating the crime, which “remains a concern that requires everyone’s attention.”
“Church leaders should endeavour to know their congregations and what they are involved in,” said Police spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Celestin Twahirwa.
All the 28, majority of whom were women and children, confessed to have been recruited from a church by a pastor only identified as Eric, who promised them a better life in Australia.
Apostle Joshua Masasu senior pastor of the Evangelical Restoration Church, where all the victims were recruited from, was not available for comment as his phone was switched off. Masasu is one of the most prominent and influential pastors in the country.
Observers say, contrary to standard claims that traffickers persuade their victims by promising them well-paying jobs abroad, in the group was a former government employee, who is not considered poor and desperate for a better life.
James Buyinza, who until recently was the head of media and customer relations at Rwanda Revenue Authority, is said to have sold his properties to pay the pastor for passage to Australia.
Buyinza is not alone. Among the rescued people are those who had sold their properties and paid millions of francs to get to Australia.
“Some of these people sold their properties, others took their entire families,” said Paulin Polepole from Rwanda Directorate General of Immigration and Emigration.
“This is how sad it is and this is proof that we should collectively stand up against human trafficking,” he added.
Church leaders who spoke to Rwanda Today, decried the growing number of churches that promise their followers miracles only to turn around and defraud them.
“We are increasingly having more false prophets, who go to people in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. We also have people who go to church as if they are looking for visas,” Bishop Dr Fidel Masengo of Foursquare Gospel Church.
Dr Masengo, who also is a board member of the Forum of Born Again Churches and Organisations in Rwanda, advises church leaders to invest more in educating “gullible” church followers who are likely to be victims of such scams.
“We should be telling believers that God’s grace will find them in their own countries and not through shortcuts,” he added.
The police are yet to make any arrests, but analysts say the new developments should inform the government to come up with new strategies to counter human trafficking.
The US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2016, ranked Rwanda as not having fully met the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; even though, “it is making significant efforts to do so.”
“Rwanda is a source, and to a lesser degree, a transit and destination country for a limited number of women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking.”
Rwanda termed the report “vague and subjective,” besides being politically motivated.
The report accused government officials, including military and security personnel, of being accomplices “in trafficking crimes, including child soldiering and sex trafficking.”
A high ranking official in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning was last month arrested at Kigali International Airport on suspicion of engagement in human trafficking.
According to sources in the judiciary, the official is charged with allegedly smuggling Rwandan women to Kenyan clients in the coastal city of Mombasa.
In response to the growing concerns officials including President Paul Kagame, have in the past advocated for legislative and judicial actions to deter human trafficking.
The country is working on amending the penal code to among other things increase punishments for Human trafficking related crimes.
“The draft is still with the law reform commission but in two or three weeks it will be ready for consideration by Cabinet,” said Rwanda’s Justice Minister and Attorney General Johnston Busingye.