We are honoured to have Bianca van Aswegen from Missing Children South Africa with us today. Bianca will share with us today the correct steps to take if a loved one goes missing. She will also give us helpful tools that you can put into place before tragedy occurs.
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Hi friends and colleagues. Welcome to our Free to Fly podcast. Free to Fly is a faith-based organisation working against human trafficking. We are very excited to present to you one of our episodes, brought by our host Natalie Ruiters, where we will speak about topics around human trafficking.
We are honoured to have Bianca van Aswegen from Missing Children South Africa with us today. Bianca will share with us today the correct steps to take if a loved one goes missing. She will also give us helpful tools that you can put into place before tragedy occurs.
Interviewee: Bianca van Aswegen (Missing Children)
Interviewer: Natalie Ruiters
List of Acronyms: Natalie Ruiters = NR:, Bianca van Aswegen = BA
NR: Hi guys, I’m Natalie Ruiters and I am representing Free To Fly South Africa. Today we have Bianca van Aswegen, and she is the case officer at MISSING CHILDREN South Africa. Today’s conversation will be around the importance of Missing Children in South Africa and the importance of the fight against human trafficking helping us find missing persons, and human trafficking. So without further ado, I’d love to welcome Bianca.
BA: Hey Natalie, thank you so much for having me.
NR: How are you doing?
BA: Good and yourself?
NR: I’m awesome. Thank you so much for being here and giving us your time. I know that you’re a very busy lady and you are on call 24 / 7. So, this time with you is very special, we are honoured. Thank you!
BA: It’s a pleasure and thank you so much for having me.
NR: Bianca can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your role as a criminologist, Case Officer at Missing Children South Africa.
BA: Yes, so I’m the National Coordinator and Case Officer at Missing Children South Africa. So we are a non-profit organization that assists throughout South Africa with all missing person cases. Whether it’s children or adults, we fight against human trafficking and stand against gender-based violence. So, my role in the organization is all the operations of the organization, as well as dealing directly with the cases. So, I make sure that all leads are followed up. I deal directly with the South African Police Services, we get the flyers out there to distribute to create awareness around the child that is missing, and anything else that comes into our organization, I just help wherever I can.
NR: I think that sounds like a full-time job. And, yeah, that’s amazing. Could you please tell us a little bit about Missing Children South Africa? When it was founded and why it was founded? Why was there a need?
BA: Missing Children South Africa started in 2007 with two little girls that went missing. One in Pretoria and one in the Western Cape. The community stood together during these times when these children went missing and, that’s when the need was seen that an organization such as Missing Children South Africa is needed in the communities – to help and distribute flyers, to help the community to assist in searches and that’s why Missing Children South Africa started. So, we work very closely with the South African police services on all cases and, it’s just. It’s a need that people need assistance with. We found that our organization is not just there to assist in cases but, also in education. In the sense of people not knowing what to do when a child goes missing. So, we are there to help these families to take them through the process of what to do when a child goes missing. The case that needs to be opened with the police, the assistance that we give as an organization and then also child safety is very important. So, our organization goes out to communities. We go to schools, we do some safety programs, and we teach the communities how to keep our children safe because it’s the whole of South Africa that needs to stand together to keep our children safe.
NR: Absolutely. So, I think that’s why these conversations are so important. I think by sharing your knowledge and the safety tips for parents and educators and communities, we are in a better position to bring our missing persons, and children down.
BA: Definitely. We all just need to stand together, our community needs to stand together and keep our children safe. It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to save a child and keep that child safe. But we as parents also need to stand together, especially the schools. They also need to teach our children the necessary safety. So people have to open their minds and realize that this is a danger to our children, and they need to educate themselves on how to keep our children safe.
NR: Wow. That is so true, that is so, so true on so many levels. Uhm, a while ago, when I chatted to you the first time, you mentioned the various reasons that children go missing. Would you be able to shed some light on the various reasons that children go missing?
BA: So children go missing, as you mentioned, for various reasons. We’ve got children that run away from home. This is not just children that are seen as naughty or those that are not allowed to get a cell phone or are not allowed to watch TV. In most cases, there are problems at home. So, we see children run away due to abuse and being bullied at school. So, it is very important to know what is going on in your child’s life to prevent children from running away from home. Then, we also deal with children that get kidnapped. Now kidnapping; there are also various reasons for this happening. So, we deal with kidnappings that happen for opportunistic reasons. We’ve got kidnappings that happen for human trafficking reasons. And then we’ve got parental abductions that happen. But unfortunately, you know, we teach our children stranger danger, but it’s not just strangers we have to be careful of when it comes to these kidnappings. We’ve seen an increase in cases with actual family members, family – friends, where the perpetrator is known to the child. So you have to be very careful about that. We also deal with cases of mentally ill children or mentally challenged children that get lost or, very young children between the ages of one to three years old that wander and often get lost. So there are so many reasons why children go missing. And we need to bring these numbers of children that go missing down in South Africa.
NR: Sho, that’s quite insightful. I think, like most people, we don’t understand the many reasons people or children go missing. So thank you for sharing a lot of that. And it also just brings to light that our children need to be happy at home and feel safe at home so that they are not running away and looking for, you know, comfort or some parental support outside. I think in that way it will bring our numbers down. Definitely.
BA: Yes, definitely. And this is one thing we always tell our families: we know we live a rushed life. Everybody just passes each other, the communication is not there anymore. Everybody’s sitting on their cell phones during dinner time, nobody sits around a table anymore and just speaks and has a normal conversation. So that is very important that I iterate to the families: sit down at dinner time, speak to your children, know what’s going on in their lives. If something is wrong, change it now before it’s too late.
NR: So powerful and so true. I think that’s a strong message that needs to go out to all families.
NR: So, Bianca when you said: kidnapping can happen for opportunistic reasons and human trafficking and parental abductions. Could you just explain a little bit more about all three of them? What does it look like?
BA: Well okay. Let’s first start with the opportunistic kidnappings. These are mostly cases where children are taken by perpetrators just for, if we can name it like that, their personal use. It’s usually children that are raped and found murdered afterwards, or there’s another ulterior motive involved. Or, we’ve also seen cases of children being taken for ransom demands. So those are all opportunistic kidnappings and some, as I mentioned earlier, yes, strangers are still a threat to our children. But some of these perpetrators are known to our children. It is family members, it’s family friends, it’s people in the communities that we need to be careful of. Then obviously, we see kidnappings happen for human trafficking reasons. Now unfortunately human trafficking is not just a problem in South Africa, but it’s a worldwide problem. But not only are children vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking but anyone can be and it’s not only girls and women, men and boys can become victims too. So we need to be very careful about human trafficking. We need to educate ourselves on the signs of human trafficking and especially now in the period that we’ve gone through with COVID, during lockdown, and everybody being online. Online has become the platform for human trafficking. Especially people that are desperate for jobs. We’ve seen an increase in that.
BA: And a lot of people have lost their jobs during COVID and are in desperate situations. There are a lot of false job advertisements on social media that are doing the rounds and that is one of the ways how these human trafficking rings recruit some victims. So we need to be very vigilant on online stuff that’s happening. And especially parents need to also monitor their children’s social media use because this is also the platform where predators lure our young children. They’ll befriend them on Facebook under a false profile. They think it’s this handsome young guy that’s interested in them. Meantime back at the range it’s someone totally different that’s chatting them up and grooming them over some time. Their parents need to be very vigilant about social media, what’s going on and monitor what their children are busy with. Then obviously, we deal with our parental abductions. Now, this comes into play, especially when there’s a divorce that is happening, and there’s a custody battle between the mom and the dad still in the case of the child. So we’ve seen a lot of cases where a family, either the mother or the father will kidnap the child until the custody has been sorted. And we’ve also seen cases where children have been taken out of our country or brought into our country by family abductions without the right paperwork. This also causes a lot of problems at the end of the day, when it comes to a divorce settlement. I really plea out there to parents who are busy getting divorced. I know it’s difficult times and please do not put your children through this.
BA: It is traumatizing to them, and it’s unnecessary to put them through this
NR: Absolutely! I agree with you. Thank you for shedding light on that. Bianca. Can you give perhaps one or two case examples of people that were lured into false employment under human trafficking?
BA: I had a child, a young girl about the age of 15 / 16, that was lured a while ago by a person, posing as a young person on Facebook, a false profile. And unfortunately, she was found raped and murdered afterwards. So there are cases of children that also get lured on social media. Then we also had a case a while back of a model agency that was recruiting girls. The one girl went for the modelling job, and they took her to Dubai. Unfortunately, what these guys do is they take away all your passports and identification and that’s how they get a hold of you and how they keep you there. Luckily she was able to escape. The authorities were able to bring her back to South Africa. She’s one of the lucky ones that was saved.
NR: Wow, that’s incredible
BA: That is such an amazing story, but unfortunately there are so many of them that are not that lucky to be found and saved and be brought back.
NR: I think that’s also why parents must bring themselves up to speed on social media and the dangers of social media. I mean, I know that being a mother of a 17-year-old, much earlier when she was allowed on social media. We had to kind of keep tabs on what she was looking at, whom she was engaging with, just for these very reasons. I now speak to other mothers, you know, within my community. I think a lot of moms don’t believe this can happen to us and our children.
BA: You get some wonderful apps these days that you can load onto your child’s social media and monitor, even on FaceTime. So with screen time, as they call it, your child is only allowed on social media for a certain time. And I think something that you mentioned, that’s very important is parents are oblivious to the fact that they think it can never happen to them and it will never happen to their children. But unfortunately, it happens so quickly and a child gets almost brainwashed by a person on social media. It really can happen to anyone. You think it can’t happen to you but it can; even as an adult, it can happen out of desperation. We need to be very careful of that.
NR: That is so, so true. And so Bianca, when you mentioned earlier that it’s becoming more and more common that a lot of perpetrators are known to their victims, does it make it easier when you’re looking for the missing persons? The fact that the perpetrator is known to the victim?
BA: Yes, we have seen an increase in cases where the perpetrator is known to the victim. So mostly family members, family friends, people known in the community. Yes, sometimes it makes it easier. In the case to solve it, but unfortunately, the sad part of it is it’s someone that the child trusted. It’s someone the child knows and that makes it even more heartbreaking when the parent is the one that trusted that person to look after their children, they left them with them, trusting them. And that is actually terrible that we cannot even trust our own people anymore. So we have to be very vigilant and look out for little red flags in cases like this. For instance: inappropriate comments towards a child. So if that person is making inappropriate comments, inappropriate touching, too much attention to a certain child. It’s very important to highlight this and also if your child comes to you and they tell you that they feel uncomfortable with someone, please listen. It might save their life. Because I know a lot of people say, especially parents, if a child comes to them and say oh but this uncle is doing this, they don’t believe them because it’s a person that’s part of the family, it’s a person that she is supposed to be able to trust. But listen to your children. It might actually save their life at the end of the day.
NR: That is such valuable information, so so valuable. Yeah, I think the key is that our kids need to feel comfortable around whoever, you know, in their circles, or family members, that is so, so valuable.
BA: Definitely. That’s also part of the education that we are trying to teach our children. If a person hugs a child. What is the appropriate way that a person is allowed to hug a child? Their hands are only allowed to be on their back and nowhere else on their body. So we as parents need to teach this to our children so that they know what is right and what is wrong and what an adult is allowed to do, and what an adult is not allowed to do to them. So they can speak out and this can be stopped immediately.
NR: So true, so so true. Very key. Bianca, in your opinion, after listening to what you’ve said about human trafficking, do you see children being sold for prostitution? Are they sold by their parents for prostitution? Do you find this in your case studies?
BA: Human trafficking is quite a broad definition of why children and people are taken as victims. So we see children and even adults being taken for human trafficking for different purposes such as sexual exploitation, forced labour and illegal adoptions. But yes, I think, well recently, we have seen an increase, where we have heard of cases where parents are actually selling off their children because of poverty and the job losses in our country. So I think COVID has reconstructed the world, in the sense of human trafficking, and the desperation of people. But there’s always a different outcome to this, that you can stop from not doing this. And I think our government, or the whole of South Africa, the whole world needs to stand together against this and especially if there’s such desperation to sell your own child. I mean, something needs to be done about that. It’s beyond comprehensible.
NR: Absolutely, it goes back to core values and the value of one’s life, and what community is, you know, do we stand up for each other? Do we, you know, let the one go under the bus? So yeah. Also, I think you know the time of COVID has made us very self-reflective and I’m hoping that these are the questions that will come up to many, even the perpetrators, you know, just begin to reflect on what they’re doing, how are they doing, the state of our communities, how can we really just make good of what is bad at the moment.
BA: I agree and I think it’s so important what you mentioned in the community needs to speak out. They know about things that are going on. Speak out about it so that we, as organizations, like weSouth Africa, the police, are there to assist. We are there to help and to stop this. So if people keep on keeping quiet about it, nothing can be done. So if anybody sees anything they need to speak up, they need to report it, so that the problem can be solved immediately and this can be stopped.
NR: So Bianca, tell me the process one needs to follow when someone goes missing. Do they contact you? How does that work?
BA: Yes, a lot of people are unaware of what to do, and are uneducated in what to do when a person or child goes missing. The people still believe there’s a waiting period of 24 hours before being able to open a case, that does not exist. A case needs to be opened at your nearest police station immediately, especially when it comes to our children. Because the first 24 hours to 48 hours when a child goes missing is crucial. After 48 hours the child can be anywhere in the world. So action needs to be taken immediately. And that is what we are there for too. If people don’t know what to do we, guide them through that the process of how to do it, what to do. As soon as that case is opened, we as Missing Children step in, get the flyer out there, distribute it as far and wide as possible, follow up on all leads and make sure we can get the child back as safely as soon as possible. So, it’s very important: the first thing to do is to open a case with the nearest police station. Please do not wait.
NR: So Bianca you say that the waiting period is 24 hours. Will the police open a case of a missing person under 24 hours? Would they adhere to that?
BA: They have to. As there is no such rule as a waiting period of 24 hours. A missing person’s case needs to be reported immediately. SAPS also put it out there on their social media pages, to say that there’s no waiting period to report a person as missing. The sooner the case gets opened, the sooner action can be taken. If the case only gets reported two or three days later, it makes the search very difficult and a person or child can be anywhere.
NR: Wow, thanks for shedding light and clarifying that, because I think many of us on social media think that there is a waiting period. So thanks for clarifying that! I think for the public as well. So they report this to the police station and then, how, where do you fit in? So they open the case and where do you fit in? Where does Missing Children South Africa fit in?
BA: So as soon as the case gets reported or opened at the police station, either the family or the police will contact us at Missing Children South Africa. So immediately there’s a communication between the family, us, and then the police, and then the station where it has been opened. So what we do is, we do a flyer with the photo, the whole description of where the person or the child was last seen. The description of height, hair colour, eye colour and the clothes they are last seen wearing. Then, we’ve got our emergency number that’s on there and it’s a 24-hour emergency number. It’s that of the police station where the case has been opened and we distribute that on social media as far and wide as possible. So we keep in contact with the family, make sure that they’re kept up to date from our side and then from the police. We also give any leads, that come to us, to the South African police services or to the station that has been reported to and we make sure that everything is done to find that person or that child.
NR: Wow, that’s incredible. Could you please just give us your emergency number on air?
BA: Yes, it’s 072. So what we’ve done is, on the old phones you had your little letters, so it’s actually 072 MISSING, but it’s 072 6477464. And then our website is www.missingchildren.org.za. Our Facebook is also available and our Twitter but, on our website, we’ve also got a report button where it gives you a form if you’d like to report it on our website.
NR: Wow. So when you say a report button, is this a family member coming to report a missing person or could it just be someone in the community that is helping the family look for a missing person?
BA: We get a lot of community members that inform us about a child that has gone missing or a person has gone missing. So as soon as they send that information through to us, we make sure that you either contact the police station that the case has been reported to or contact the family and get all the necessary information that we need. Then, we distribute the flyer for that missing person or child. So anyone can report any incident to us, and we’ll make sure that we get the necessary information to get the flyer and assist from there onwards.
NR: That’s so good to know. I think it just helps us, you know, become mobilized, if such an unfortunate circumstance happened to anyone in the community.
BA: Social media definitely assists us by getting the flyers out there and getting it spread as far and wide as possible. But people need to be aware that posting their own Facebook post about a person that’s missing, can be very dangerous. We get a lot of extortion cases that happen, of people putting out their own posts with their own personal numbers. So for instance, just an example of a child that’s gone missing, the parents put their own cell phone numbers on there, they get called, they get extorted for money and the child is just down the road at a friend’s house. So, people, we need to be very vigilant about doing that. And that is why organizations such as Missing Children South Africa exist to take out that extortion part of it, run it the proper protocol through the case, and put our emergency numbers and that of the police on our flyers so situations like this do not happen.
NR: Wow. Bianca, so when you do the flyer, how long does it take from the time of reporting to you to the time that the flyer begins to be distributed and circulated? What is the timeframe? What does that look like?
BA: It depends on case to case, because we’re trying to get it out as soon as possible within the first few minutes that the case gets reported to us. But sometimes there is a bit of a waiting period because people will contact us and have not yet opened the case with the police. Unfortunately, sometimes there’s a time that you have to wait even though you want to get the flyer out there immediately. But a case has not been reported to the police yet. Unfortunately, we only take on cases where a missing person case has been reported to the police. Otherwise, we do get cases that get reported to us with actually not a missing person, but a wanted person, so that’s why we have to have a missing person case opened with the police and we do need the OB or inquiry number of that missing person case given to us, for us to be able to assist. So it depends if everybody’s family has all that information, you know together and they contact us, we can get the flyer out there within minutes.
BA: Otherwise, unfortunately, then a case needs to be opened first. Or sometimes when a community member reports something to us we have to get hold of the police first or get hold of the family to get all the necessary information and unfortunately, that also takes time sometimes. But we try our best to get the info as soon as possible so that the flyer can get out there immediately.
NR: Wow, thank you for clarifying that. I think it’s so important that we know that. And I think when you’re in a state of panic, you just don’t know your next steps. So it’s good that we know this, thank you for sharing that.
BA: I think something you mentioned now that’s very important is the panic state people go into. I know, we dealt with a case, unfortunately, beginning of the week where a little baby was taken in a hijacking.
NR: I heard of that one.
BA: Yes, it was terrible – but luckily the child has been found and found alive. So it’s a wonderful outcome, but the panic state that happens as soon as a child goes missing. I understand parents go through a very traumatic time at that moment. But we ask parents to try and keep a level head at that moment and just follow the necessary procedures so that assistance can be given immediately.
NR: Wow, Bianca when I spoke to you the last time and did a bit of research on your website, I saw that you have such a useful tool, it’s called a child ID kit. Can you share a little bit about what it is and why it’s so important that we fill out these forms when we are calm and collected and nothing has happened for the event when we might need it?
BA: Yes, we call it the interim ID kit and it’s available for anyone to download from our website. It’s a wonderful form especially since we just talked about where you are in a panic state and your child has just gone missing and you don’t know what to do. This form comes in handy in a time of emergency. So it’s a form that you download and fill in with all the details of your child, the height, weight, hair colour, eye colour, attach a photograph and you can have the fingerprinting done at your nearest police station. So it’s all the information of your child on a piece of paper that you keep for safekeeping. And that is all the necessary information that is needed when you find yourself in an emergency and you have to open a missing person case. So it really just helps a parent in that situation where they do not remember the eye colour, or the height, or the weight of their child. Where all that information is actually quite necessary.
BA: So they’ve got that on hand to give to the police immediately, and all the information is available. We do ask parents to update it yearly as the child grows. And obviously, also on the form is a little part we fill in, for instance, birthmarks. You know distinctive marks on your child that are easily recognizable. So it’s very important to keep that for safekeeping. I always ask parents to make two to keep one at home, and one in their handbag with them when they go out to public places. So it’s very important to always have that with you that if you do find yourself in an emergency, you’ve all got that information on hand to give to the police, to give to us, so we can start helping immediately.
NR: Bianca, this is such a useful tool I mean, I didn’t realize how important it was until I had spoken to you the last time, and I have downloaded the document and I have filled in three forms, one of myself, my husband and my daughter. My husband believes he’ll never go missing, or he’s not a threat. But yes, I thought it was really important that we fill these forms, and I would love to challenge three other moms or three other persons, really just to fill in a form, which is found under the Missing Children’s website that was noted. It’ll be noted in our talk notes below. The first three moms or partners that fill in this form, please tag us @freetofly on your social media page, or we will pick it up, and we will give you a pair of studs from the La Poppie jewellery. This is just a challenge and I think more and more need to be equipped in a place to sort of act if an unfortunate circumstance happens like this. Bianca, for the amazing work that you do we would love to give you the “La Poppie” earring studs. We will get them to you, as just a token of appreciation for the amazing work that you do. I know that you work 24 hours, and you’re just on call. So we appreciate you!
BA: Thank you so much. Yes, we wish we were a massive organization and can have offices throughout South Africa, but unfortunately without funding, we are not able to do that. Yes, I’m at the heart of this organization and this is my passion. This is something I’ll never give up on and assisting all these families is what I need to do in life. We also never give up on any missing person case. We’ve got a case that dates back to 1988, and up until today we’ll reshare and make sure that the faces get out there to see if we can´t find any new leads on these cases and just give the family some closure. But we thank you guys for the opportunity that you gave me today and the wonderful gift and all the beautiful words. Thank you so much for what you guys are doing, and for opening this home to victims of human trafficking, it’s absolutely amazing.
NR: We in this together. It takes a community to build a community as you said. Lastly Bianca, I just wanted to ask, I know that this is your 24-hour job, and I know that you have a family, and I know that a lot of the work that you do is not the most fun work to wake up to every day. How do you strike a balance? How are you able to spend time with your family, if you’re on call 24/7?
BA: It is quite difficult, but you have to make time for your family. Family is important and that’s one of the aspects, of doing what I am doing. That’s what I am trying to get out there in South Africa is that family is important. Our children are important, and how quickly someone can go missing, and you’ll never see them again. So, juggling a 24-hour job and having a family is not always easy, and it’s always heartbreaking, especially when I’ve got cases where children go missing and children are found deceased or murdered. You know I have to compile myself. I have to keep myself intact for my family’s sake, and yes I do make time for them, but also when my emergency phone rings and I’ve got a family who states that their child is gone missing. I need to assist and that is what I’m here for throughout South Africa to assist in all missing person cases, so that takes priority. As soon as this phone rings and I need to get up at two o’clock in the morning to help save a child’s life. That is what I do. So yes, my family is very important to me. I make time for them, they also assist me quite a lot in, you know, being there for me and what I do and they are my support system at the end of the day.
NR: That is incredible. That is incredible that they are there to support you and kind of be your sound board. Bianca, thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate what you do. I am greatly inspired by all that you do. And, yeah, thank you so much! We appreciate you!
Dear friends and key stakeholders, thank you for joining us on today’s podcast. Our aim and heart for these podcasts are to bring awareness on human trafficking. To highlight the atrocity this crime is to humanity. A reminder that human trafficking is a multi- billion Dollar industry, which is sadly the fastest growing worldwide and second biggest crime after drugs. It is far more organized than many care to believe.
Our aim of the podcasts is to bring clarity and understanding of what exactly what human trafficking is and how it impacts victims, survivors. We hope to highlight the roles of various stakeholders and how we can all be part of the solution and bringing an end to what we know as modern-day slavery.
We invite you to join hands in fighting against human trafficking, follow us on our social media pages: @freetofly.org.za on Instagram and on Face Book, @freefly.org.za. Do check our website out and sign up to be a volunteer or donate towards the building and running of our safe house for children who have come out of human trafficking. All details will be put in the link below or our last slide.
For those of you who do not know, Free To Fly, are an organization that is currently starting up one of the first safe houses for children who have been rescued from human trafficking in South Africa. We will be offering a home that will provide a space to heal, recover and be set up to be free to fly. Please follow our journey on our website.
Till next time, take care and be sure to share and listen out for the next podcast. Thanks friends!
Free To Fly can’t be held liable about the content and views of our podcast guests.
Missing Children website: https://missingchildren.org.za/