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Women, Children, Men: All Victims of Human Trafficking in East Africa

  • Joe DeCapua

The International Organization for Migration says there’s an urgent need for tougher action against human trafficking in East Africa. The IOM has released a new assessment of the problem, saying men, women and children of all ages are being exploited.

Human trafficking often begins with the basic desire to seek a better life in another country. However, the IOM says that dream often turns into tragedy with exploitation by family members, religious acquaintances, businessmen and retired prostitutes.

Alice Kimani, the organization’s counter-trafficking program officer in Nairobi, says, “In East Africa, all the countries have been identified as sources, transit and destination countries for human trafficking.”

Although it affects both genders and all ages, Kimani says some are more attractive targets for traffickers.

“You find that children and young people are more vulnerable. But we also see a trend of men being trafficked, even older men for purposes of forced labor, though not in large numbers,” she says.

Many types of exploitation

“For example,” she says, “in Kenya we found women and children being subjected to sexual exploitation. We have found them exploited for domestic work. We’ve recently found some children from Tanzania trafficked to Kenya for street begging. We’ve also come across children who are trafficked to work in the agricultural sector. They are employed in farms and they are subjected to hard labor, forced labor.”

The assessment also found a lot of internal trafficking within Tanzania. Children from rural areas are lured by the promise of going to school. The tempting offer often comes from relatives or friends of their parents. They never make it to school. Instead, they are forced to do domestic labor.

It’s difficult for the IOM to give a good estimate as to how many people in East Africa are victims of human traffickers. “Because of lack of identification techniques or a centralized way of collecting data, a lot of this information gets lost in the way. So the victims may get assisted or they may not get assisted and we’ll never know their numbers,” Kimani says.

Organizing against traffickers

Some 50 senior East African government officials, civil society members and international experts reviewed the IOM’s assessment at a recent meeting. As a result, they proposed the organization take steps to help establish a regional network to share information on trafficking. That could eventually lead to a centralized database that could be shared with law enforcement agencies.

The organization says, currently, Rwanda is the only country in the region where the government has established both shelter and hotline services to assist victims of gender violence and trafficking.

Alice Kimani says they also called for implementation of a region-wide 116 emergency hotline number to report possible cases of human trafficking.

“It was recognized that 116 [is] a number that has been adopted by many countries in the region. For example, Mozambique and Zimbabwe already have 116. Kenya also has a 116. And 116 is a number that has been used in other countries as a very child-friendly line. So the participants were recommending for this number to actually be adopted by all the countries in East Africa,” she says.

Many victims are afraid to talk about their experiences. They say if they go public, traffickers could hurt their families or they could be stigmatized if they returned to their homes.

Kimani says, “It is only through counseling and assisting them that we can actually assist them to come out of that sort of hibernation.

Besides counseling, the International Organization for Migration also offers adult education or business classes to help them find jobs.

Continued violence in the Eastern DRC is contributing to the human trafficking problem. Buses and lorries carry war-weary Congolese to Uganda in hopes of finding a better life, but they often become prey of traffickers.

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