With the bulk of her support coming from a tax deductible American charity, Ronas helps women like Grace return to Uganda with an expired visa and supports them in the process. For several months she’s been getting “three new calls a week.” Nearly all of them are Ugandans.
She assists by providing the women with the right information: where to go and what to do. She tries to raise the money for the plane ticket home and the RMB10,000 fine for overstaying a visa. Many women are unaware of the Uganda Consulate of Guangzhou, and one of Ronas’s roles is to connect them with it.
Members of the Consulate wanted to remain off the record.
Once a woman’s visa has expired, she’s taken to a detention centre. After serving an unspecified time there (up to several months), the penalty is waived. The woman is then required to pay for a flight ticket home. For those unable to afford the price of a ticket the detention period is often longer before release and deportation.
Assisting girls who want to stop working as prostitutes, Ronas pays them a stipend in the two-to-three-month process it takes to get them home. During that time the girls cannot go back to prostitution. If they do, Ronas says, “it wouldn’t be an immediate deal breaker, but it would likely change the terms of assistance.”
Ronas shies away from dealing directly with the authorities as it “can cause more harm than good.” She states emphatically that it’s not always Ugandans, “there are also a large number of Tanzanian women, and I’ve heard of Rwandan, Kenyan and Guinean women as well.” And, of course, not all Ugandans in Guangzhou are connected to trafficking.
Offering a more academic perspective on the dilemma is Heidi Østbø Haugen, a research fellow currently studying at Sun Yat-sen university, one of best in the country. Haugen explores migration from Africa to China and trade from China to Africa.
In an African food restaurant near Xiaobei metro station, Haugen explains that unlike Chinese sex workers, trafficked Africans “tend to be older, late 20s, in their 30s, some in their 40s.” This is down to primary and secondary education being free in Uganda, meaning women have usually held jobs for several years before being approached.
Haugen explains, “Trafficking is dependent on networks and infrastructure. Once the trade has been set up then they will start and continue to do it.”
And it’s no random geographical phenomenon that areas San Yuan Li and Xiaobei Lu have become hotspots for African streetwalkers. In San Yuan Li squats a huge trading mall called Canaan. Canaan, in the Bible, means “the Promised Land” and attracts many Nigerian Christians — over 50 percent of Nigeria’s population is Christian. In the Xiaobei area there are many services catering for Muslims, especially those on short trading trips. It’s a convenient place to stay with clothes, shoes and suitcases for sale, and the 500 year old Xiao Dongying mosque in the vicinity.
There are all kinds of estimates of Africans living in Guangzhou ranging from 20,000 to 200,000, but Haugen believes “the number is closer to 20,000.” The statistics are inflated as Africans entering anywhere in Guangdong Province are counted.
Most West Africans in Guangdong tend to be men, whilst the women come from East Africa and trade in anything from clothes, shoes and hair products to mobile phones and motorcycles. Once coming to Guangzhou, however, many relocate to nearby cities such as Shenzhen, Foshan or Dongguan.
Of career routes Haugen points out that “sex worker to trader is a more viable than sex worker to trafficker. Many would rather undo their choices. Even those that make it, do so with great sacrifice.” Leaving your home and family is one thing, but “going back and putting your people into debt is disastrous.”
The strict RMB10,000 fine is putting the individual person in debt. China’s attitude towards immigration drives those with an illegal status to stay and hide rather than expose themselves.
A new immigration policy has made it increasingly difficult for girls to actually leave the country. If your visa has expired then you can’t be issued registration documents. It’s a catch-22 situation where the immigration department won’t issue an exit visa without the necessary documents, and the registration office can’t provide anything if your visa has expired.
These stipulations have created a very high and small hoop for Ronas to jump through. Throw in the RMB2,000 registration fine and one can see the need for Ronas to raise $3,000 to $4000 for each girl.
Haugen believes, “If a market has been created for prostitution then the solution is to prosecute the traffickers not tighten visa restrictions.”
Towards the end of Haugen’s explanation and Ronas’s passionate message is echoed, “There is a massive exaggeration about African sex workers. It’s sad when unsuccessful businesswomen come over. Many label all African women prostitutes out of jealously.” It’s undeniable that human traffickers have made it more difficult for African women as a whole. They are continually viewed with extra scrutiny.