Africa fights the ‘people trade’

Scourge of human trafficking ensnares hundreds of thousand
From Africa Renewal: 
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A young girl from Benin City in Nigeria’s southern Edo StateA young girl from Benin City in Nigeria’s southern Edo State, where the vast majority of Nigerian women trafficked to Europe for prostitution originate.
Photograph: Panos / Lorena Ros

When 20-year-old Isoke Aikpitanyi was offered a job in Italy in 2000 she leapt at the chance. Life was difficult at home in Nigeria and opportunities for young women were limited and few. She knew that she would have to enter the country illegally and that the promised job would be low-paying and menial — that of a maid or nanny perhaps. But it seemed better than staying home, and the woman who made the job offer would also make the travel arrangements and pay the costs, which Ms. Aikpitanyi would repay from her earnings.

It was only after her arrival in the Italian city of Turin, she told Al-Jazeerah television in 2008, that things went terribly wrong. Shortly after her arrival, she said, she was told that “foreigners without permits can only do one job in Italy — work the streets” as a prostitute. “They told me I had to pay a debt of $20,000. The week before, they killed a girl who slept in my bedroom because she refused to pay. My resistance only lasted four weeks.”

Failure to work or earn enough, she continued, was punished with violence. One beating left her in a coma for three days. Women who tried to escape were often murdered as a lesson to others. “I was a sex slave. They deceived me to come to Italy for a job that didn’t exist.”

Such illegal trade in people through trickery and violence is now widely known as “human trafficking” and is a problem across the globe. The only thing unusual about Ms. Aikpitanyi’s ordeal was its happy ending. After months of brutality and sexual exploitation she finally broke free of her captors and started an organization for trafficking victims in Italy, the Association of Benin City Girls, to help more women escape. So far, she noted, more than 300 women have sought the association’s help.

No escape for many

Countless others, mostly women and children, notes the United Nations, are not so lucky. Driven by poverty, conflict, discrimination and injustice, says the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries fall prey to sophisticated trafficking gangs every year — living and too often dying in harsh conditions on the shadowy margins of societies far from home. Fearful of the authorities and forced to work as prostitutes and labourers under threat of violence, many find no escape.

boy harvesting tea leaves in KenyaA boy harvesting tea leaves in Kenya: Much of the human trafficking within Africa involves children taken to neighbouring countries for domestic or farm labour.
© Peter Arnold Inc. / Charlotte Thege

In response to stories like that of Ms. Aikpitanyi, African governments are stepping up efforts to combat trafficking. Public education and awareness campaigns have been launched, police and border control agents are being trained to detect and prevent trafficking, and cross-border and international cooperation has been strengthened.

But a lack of human and financial resources for anti-trafficking activities, combined with weak laws, porous borders and a seemingly endless supply of people desperate to escape grinding poverty at home, have hamstrung efforts by African and other developing countries to prevent their citizens from falling into the hands of the trafficking gangs.

Countries that are the destinations for the traffickers’ human merchandise also need to do more. Until the demand for cheap, coerced labour is reduced and governments treat trafficked persons as victims of crime instead of lawbreakers themselves, experts say, traffickers will always find ways to supply the market.

‘Huge problem’ in Africa

The precise number of people lured into trafficking is unknown. Between the smugglers’ efforts to avoid detection and the low priority given by most governments to monitoring and preventing trafficking, estimates vary widely, notes the UN human rights commissioner’s special rapporteur on human trafficking, Joy Ezeilo. She puts the total number of people trafficked globally last year at about 2.5 million, including more than 1 million children. It is also big business, earning the gangs upwards of $10 bn a year, reports UNICEF.

“What I can say,” Ms. Ezeilo told Africa Renewal in an interview from her offices in Lagos, “is that human trafficking in Africa is a huge problem. Africa itself has become a major source of trafficked people around the world, both within and outside Africa.” The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that in Italy alone between 10,000 and 15,000 Nigerian women have been trafficked into the commercial sex industry.

In contrast to the international trade, where 80 per cent of the victims are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, Ms. Ezeilo explained, “in Africa we have trafficking of people into domestic work, farm labour and construction, in addition to sexual exploitation. We have focused a lot on trafficking for sexual exploitation outside Africa, but these other forms are there within Africa’s borders and they are there on a very large scale.”

Complex factors

A detailed 2009 report by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) bears her out. The UNODC study, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, found that trafficking Africans overseas is most often a brutally straightforward enterprise, with the great majority of victims young women destined for Europe and the US where they are forced into prostitution. Trafficking within Africa, however, is far more complex and fueled by a wide range of factors determining who is targeted by the traffickers and what they are forced to do when they arrive at their destinations. Those factors include local economic conditions, seasonal demands for labour, and military conflicts and environmental degradation that disrupt livelihoods. Cultural practices and gender and ethnic discrimination that reduce economic and social opportunities for women, children and minorities also contribute and make abuses of their rights more acceptable to society.

In Mali, the government reported that 119 children (81 boys and 38 girls) were known to have been trafficking victims in 2006. Nearly two-thirds were sent to locations inside the country. Most of those taken outside Mali were discovered in surrounding countries. In 2005, notes a report of the special rapporteur, Malawian authorities arrested a trafficker trying to smuggle 15 children, including a 10-year-old, into Zambia for use in seasonal farm labour.

A woman from Côte d’Ivoire working in Rabat, MoroccoA woman from Côte d’Ivoire working in Rabat, Morocco. Sometimes people from sub-Saharan Africa en route to Europe get stranded in North Africa and are pressed into prostitution or forced labour there. Photograph: Panos / Alfredo Caliz

In southwest Nigeria, as many as a thousand children from neighbouring Benin were found to be employed as forced labour in the region’s gravel quarries, despite efforts by the two governments to halt the practice. According to a 2007 report to the UN Human Rights Council by the non-governmental Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Children, the victims, some as young as six, were forced to dig and transport stones eight to 10 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, without pay and without adequate food or accommodation, for as long as six years. Traffickers working for the mine owners instead paid victims’ parents small sums over that period. On at least one occasion, the study asserts, mine owners forced hundreds of children into the surrounding countryside to avoid discovery by government inspectors.

In 2006 the Mauritanian government reported to UNODC that 22 Mauritanian children had been trafficked to several Middle Eastern countries and forced to work as jockeys in the camel racing industry. According to media accounts, the children were selected for their small size, forced to live in barbed wire compounds and deliberately underfed to prevent weight gain. The children were often beaten and sexually abused, and sometimes suffered serious injuries in racing accidents.

Exploiting poverty, tradition

The scope and diversity of the human trafficking problem in Africa, combined with the region’s open borders and weak law enforcement institutions, make it particularly difficult to stop, notes Ms. Ezeilo, the special rapporteur. Globally, she says, it is usually possible to classify states according to their use as source, destination or transit countries. Such categories are intended to help governments better target their anti-trafficking programmes and law enforcement resources.

“Our problem in Africa is that most countries are all three, including my country, Nigeria,” Ms. Ezeilo explains. Sometimes countries become destination countries by accident because people en route to Europe get stranded in North Africa and are pressed into prostitution or forced labour there. “It can be very hard for governments to know what to tackle and where to focus their attention.”

Traffickers can also take advantage of traditional apprenticeships and other cultural practices to lure people into bondage. In Senegal, studies by the UN, IOM and US government have found, the centuries-old practice of sending children to study at religious schools, called daaras, has become corrupted. Daaras were originally located in rural areas and provided religious instruction and accommodation to boys as young as four or five from nearby communities in exchange for farm labour. The schools often provided the only education available to poor families.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, drought and economic hardship forced many of the daaras to move to the largest city, Dakar, breaking contact between children and their parents and opening the practice to abuse. In many cases, researchers found, the marabouts (teachers) offer little religious instruction and instead force their students to beg on the streets for long hours, under threat of beatings. The Senegalese government and the UN have responded with programmes to improve conditions in the schools and educate parents about the dangers, but progress has been slow.

Traffickers have also exploited another common practice in Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and other countries: placing poor girls in the homes of wealthier families to work as domestics in exchange for accommodation and education. Many never see the inside of a school.

“Most families don’t know” how their children are treated, notes Ms. Ezeilo. Trafficking victims are often approached with bogus job offers by people in their communities who win the trust of victims and their parents.

Victimizing the vulnerable

For all the complexity and variation of Africa’s human trafficking problems, observes Ms. Ezeilo, there are some common threads. “People who find themselves trafficked are all in vulnerable circumstances. Among women, gender inequalities are a major ‘push’ factor. Lack of education and employment force women into trafficking situations. Others are running away from forced marriages and abusive husbands.”

Because of very high youth unemployment, young people are more vulnerable than adults, she says. “Look at Africa. You have poverty, wars and political crises, bad governance, discrimination against women, inequality, a lack of education and illiteracy. These make people vulnerable and the traffickers exploit them.”

Traffickers also share some common traits, she explains. “They are mostly criminal gangs. People who know how to smuggle guns and drugs also know ways to smuggle people. They are sophisticated at information technology. The Internet is becoming a tool for the traffickers. They post these jobs. They exploit people who are looking for work. You can find yourself being trafficked just like that.”

Coercion and violence are common as well. “I have seen cases where people are made to swear an oath in front of their families that they know they are traveling illegally and will comply with traffickers’ conditions to pay back the cost of transportation.” Some women from West Africa trafficked to Western Europe, she noted, are told after they arrive that the cost of transporting them is $500,000. “They will have to work the rest of their lives to pay!”

Despite the brutality, Ms. Ezeilo says, victims are often more afraid of the police than the gangs, and rarely seek protection. Trafficked people are often viewed by the governments of destination countries as illegal immigrants and deported, rather than being aided as victims of crime. The traffickers exploit this, and tell their victims: “You can go to the authorities, but then you are in trouble. You will be repatriated and punished.”

Ms. Ezeilo urges destination countries to treat victims of human trafficking separately from “willing immigrants” and to place human rights at the centre of their actions. “Then people would be willing to talk about this. Otherwise it is clandestine. You will never know about it and you will never be able to stop it.”

Although many trafficked people, like Isoke Aikpitanyi, begin their journeys as illegal migrants, international law requires governments to recognize the trafficked as crime victims once it has been shown that they have been subjected to violence and coercion. In addition to the protection of their basic human rights, trafficking victims are, within the laws and means of destination countries, entitled to information about legal and administrative proceedings against them, to participation in prosecutions against their traffickers, to physical safety and well-being, and to the opportunity to seek financial compensation for damages.

In addition, host governments are required to “consider” providing medical and psychological assistance to trafficking victims, education for trafficked children prior to repatriation, housing and legal counseling, and, in “appropriate” cases, temporary or permanent residency.

Confronting trafficking

The good news, says Ms. Ezeilo, is that since the UN’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (see box) came into force in late 2003, many countries have expanded efforts to end the trade. A 2006 survey of 155 countries by the UNODC found that those with some form of anti-trafficking legislation increased from 33 per cent in 2003 to more than 80 per cent in 2008. More than half of those countries, including some in Africa, have created special anti-trafficking police forces to enforce the new laws.

In Burkina Faso, parliament passed a law in 2003 criminalizing the trafficking of anyone under 18 and created a separate police unit to enforce it. Convictions for trafficking more than doubled between 2004 and 2006, although the numbers remain low. A law criminalizing adult trafficking is now pending. Ethiopia adopted anti-trafficking legislation and a national action plan in 2004. The government investigated 37 cases of trafficking in 2007 and won 18 convictions — eight of which resulted in prison sentences of 10 years or more.

Ms. Ezeilo singles out Ghana and Nigeria for their efforts to fight trafficking. Both countries have passed anti-trafficking laws and established specialized police units, she says, and aggressively investigate and prosecute cases. In Nigeria, UNODC reports, the National Agency for the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons coordinates anti-trafficking units in both the national police and the immigration department. Convictions increased from eight in 2007 to 24 in 2008. The government also provides medical and psychological services and temporary visas, work permits and financial aid to victims. “It shows what political will can do,” Ms. Ezeilo asserts. “Governments that are determined to crack down on trafficking can be successful.”

Regional programmes are also being set up. The Economic Community of West African States has adopted an initiative to promote uniform anti-trafficking legislation and improve cross-border cooperation. In Southern Africa, where anti-trafficking legislation and enforcement are particularly weak, the IOM and a research group, the Southern African Migration Project, convened in 2008 the first of a series of regional meetings to raise governmental awareness of trafficking.

On 16 June the African Union marked the 2009 Day of the African Child with the launch of a pan-African campaign, the Africa Union Commission Initiative Against Trafficking. Its purpose is to raise awareness among governments and promote implementation of an action plan, adopted in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in 2006, that calls for criminalizing trafficking, developing national anti-trafficking strategies and strengthening the ability of police and courts to detect and prosecute traffickers.

Grassroots action

Civil society groups and religious leaders also have a key role to play, Ms. Ezeilo notes. “Community initiatives are the best intervention. They are there in the village. They know the problems people face. Local organizations can mobilize the leaders, educate the religious figures and traditional leaders, and counsel the person and the families about what can happen.”

In Swaziland, civil society activists identify high-risk individuals and families. They offer counseling to potential victims and try to address the problems pushing them into the arms of traffickers. In extreme cases, one Swazi activist told Africa Renewal in Addis Ababa in late 2008, children and young adults are removed from their families and sheltered in the capital city, Mbabane, to prevent abuses.

Internationally, religious orders and global women’s organizations have created informal networks to rescue trafficked people, protect them from retaliation or arrest and arrange transportation and counseling back home.

Curbing the demand

Wealthier countries that attract traffickers can also do more, Ms. Ezeilo concludes. They should continue to help African and Asian countries solve the economic and social problems that drive people to traffickers, while at the same time acting to curb demand at home. “We can never hope to stop the supply of trafficked people from poor countries until we also tackle the demand for those people in the wealthy countries.”

This would require a shift in priorities, she says. “Recipient countries put their resources into combating illegal immigration. They are not really going after the traffickers,” whose victims account for only a small percentage of the total number of people residing illegally in host countries. But because of the violence and intimidation against trafficked individuals, she noted, the cases “are completely different. They must train their law enforcement officers to fight trafficking and in how to identify the victims.”

Speaking at UN headquarters in May, IOM Deputy Director-General Ndioro Ndiaye noted that many governments see trafficking as part of the larger — and politically sensitive — problem of illegal migration. The lines immigration officials must draw between migrants seeking to illegally cross borders and those being trafficked “can be exceptionally fine,” she said. Failures to identify trafficking victims are more likely “in a climate which is generally hostile to migration.” Border patrol and immigration officials in destination countries, she said, should see prevention of trafficking as a priority in addition to the enforcement of migration laws.

The “root causes” of trafficking are not just poverty and unemployment in developing countries, Ms. Ndiaye said, although anti-trafficking programmes have long focused almost exclusively on those problems. Today, she noted, there is recognition that demand for cheap labour or “exotic or unusual sex” in the destination countries is also a root cause of trafficking that must be addressed.

Ms. Ezeilo agrees, arguing that prostitution in particular remains a major incentive for the trafficking of women and girls into developed countries. In many cases, she noted, government officials and the public “are not seeing that so many of the women and girls are trafficked and forced into that trade. They are not seeing the women as the victims of exploitation and violence.” Trafficking is not an issue of immigration, she argues. “It is an issue of human rights.”    

UN protocol against human trafficking

Following the outlawing of the international slave trade in the 19th century, early efforts to prevent human trafficking included the 1904 International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, as the transport of women for forced prostitution was then called. In December 2003, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, came into force, part of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. The protocol now has 117 government signatories, including 41 in Africa.

The protocol is intended to close gaps and loopholes in existing international and national legislation and offer greater protection to trafficking victims. It defines trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt” of people through the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, through abduction, fraud, deception or the abuse of power, or through using payments or other benefits to induce vulnerable people to consent to being trafficked “for the purpose of exploitation.”

In addition to combating trafficking, the protocol is intended to protect and assist victims, “with full respect for their human rights,” and promotes international cooperation against trafficking. It urges signatory governments to adopt comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation, to provide aid, counselling and repatriation assistance to victims, to step up training programmes for law enforcement and immigration officers and to improve information exchange and cross-border cooperation to prevent trafficking.