- Despite the noise around child safety, one child is reported missing every five hours in South Africa.
- Criminologist Bianca van Aswegen says that the initial phase of human trafficking might start with social media interaction.
- The Missing Children South Africa national coordinator talks about the organisation’s latest efforts with Tractor Outdoor.
South Africa was declared a human-trafficking hub by the US Department of State towards the end of 2021.
In 2022, at least one child is reported missing every five hours in South Africa, with child kidnapping, abductions and human trafficking increasing at an alarming rate each day.
“The fact that children go missing each year is a real and present danger. As an organisation, we feel it is necessary to ensure that the citizens of South Africa are aware of this threat to the safety of all our children,” says criminologist and national coordinator at Missing Children South Africa (MCSA), Bianca van Aswegen.
Van Aswegen, who has been with the organisation since 2015, tells us that for her, “it is not just a job, but a passion to help those in need who have a loved one who is missing”.
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She adds that they assist the South African Police Service (SAPS) in all missing persons cases in South Africa and have to be reactive and create awareness when a missing person case is reported.
According to van Aswegen, the rescue process is very delicate. Special task teams assist them in rescuing victims, bearing in mind that human-trafficking syndicates are very dangerous.
Since case information is sensitive, Van Aswegen was only prepared to share that in many cases, “young girls [are] groomed on social media over some time [and] they build a trust relationship with the perpetrator”.
She explains that this generally culminates in a personal meeting, and the girls usually end up becoming victims.
“In some cases, we have seen young boys being taken and kept for forced labour, where they were beaten and not fed over time,” Van Aswegen says.
She also shares that Missing Children South Africa often sees victims lured through drug trafficking and end up falling victim to a human trafficking ring.
“There are many different reasons for trafficking, such as sexual exploitation, forced labour, illegal adoptions, and organ trafficking. There is also a wide range of opportunistic kidnappings, parental abductions, kidnappings for ransom and then, human trafficking,” she adds.
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Van Aswegen says it’s difficult to determine whether a case is linked to trafficking until they find the victim safely and the investigation reveals the circumstances.
There are notable things to look out for when a person has gone missing and it’s suspected that the person is a trafficking victim:
- Have they applied for a job online for which there is no reference?
- Is a child talking to unknown people on social media?
- Has the person’s demeanour changed recently?
- Have they become very secretive?
Van Aswegen says other types of kidnapping are often easier to identify, such as those involving ransom demands or a parent who has taken a child without consent.
Educate children on safety
“Parents should educate children on safety. Prevention is better than cure. Social media poses a huge danger to our children, so we urge parents to monitor their children’s social media use, as this is where predators lure our children and groom them,” Van Aswegen advises.
“In many cases where we have seen young girls being lured by older men, parents need to be vigilant. We have taught our children ‘stranger danger’. Yes, strangers are still a threat to our children, but we also need to be cautious of our community members, friends and people. Therefore, children trust these people and are more easily lured by them,” she adds.
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Red flags to look out for
Van Aswegen says that when it comes to people who know or are familiar with our children, red flags include paying too much attention to a particular child, inappropriate touching and inappropriate comments.
She adds that there is no waiting period for the reporting of a missing child/person. The quicker the case is reported, the quicker action can be taken.
For more visibility, Missing Children South Africa (MCSA) has partnered with outdoor advertisers Tractor Outdoor – an organisation that assists authorities whenever a child goes missing – to speedily return missing children safely to their homes.
This outdoor media owner offered up its countrywide billboard network – which reaches more than 30 million consumers each month – to the organisation on a no-charge basis, allowing for the rapid communication of new missing child alerts to critical areas and high-traffic locations, such as highways and petrol stations.
Remi Du Preez, a commercial director at Tractor Outdoor, explains that there is nothing more distressing to a family or community than a missing child.
Du Preez says they approached Missing Children South Africa (MCSA) to create a digital channel to facilitate fast-to-market communication close to areas where the child was last seen.
She says that this approach has been very successful in the United States; media owners and authorities collaborate closely when matters of national concern arise, and they wanted to replicate the model closer to home.
According to Du Preez, the key to the rapid dissemination of alerts was designing a seamless process, which included the creation of a universal template.
Explaining this process, she says MCSA swiftly adds essential details such as the child’s name, age, image and area where they were last seen into the template and share it with Tractor Outdoor’s content management team.
Once the team receives the information, they immediately upload the details, schedule the campaign rollout, and the alert is flighted within minutes of its receipt.
Since time is critical in missing children cases, this fast turnaround time plays a crucial role in finding missing children.
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