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US Finds Progress Slow Against Human Trafficking in Africa

FILE - Migrants, who tried to flee to Europe, travel in a dinghy after they were stopped by Libyan coast guards and made to head to Tripoli, Sept. 29, 2015. The North African country has turned into a major hub for human traffickers smuggling African migrants by boat to Italy, with the Libyan coastguard under pressure from Europe to stem the flow.

The U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons report Thursday and again, Africa continues to be a major source and destination for human trafficking of all kinds — from forced labor to sexual slavery.

Again this year, not one African nation made the report’s top tier — which is dominated by developed Western nations like the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.

The State Department says the ratings are based more on the extent of government action to combat trafficking than the size of the country’s problem.

A significant number of African countries remain at the lowest possible ranking.

Migrant crisis

Susan Coppedge, a senior advisor to the U.S. secretary of state, said the migrant crisis that saw more than a million Africans, Iraqis and Syrians flee to Europe last year has had a negative effect. She said the U.S is trying to help the destination countries screen for trafficking victims.

“So the migrant crisis creates a whole new pool of individuals who are vulnerable and susceptible to trafficking. If they are stateless or without documents. or without jobs, without their families they become vulnerable to the false promises that traffickers can give them for jobs, or safety, or shelter,” she said.

Jakob Christensen, a program manager for Awareness Against Human Trafficking, an anti-trafficking group in Nairobi, says he’s especially worried about the effect of ongoing conflict in East and Central Africa.

“I think the main change is the different migration patterns that we are seeing at the moment from places like Burundi and Somalia and South Sudan,” he said.

Anti-trafficking measures

The report notes that in 2015, six African nations improved or introduced anti-trafficking legislation. It also noted that countries that improved — like Burkina Faso, the lone improver in West Africa — stepped up efforts to prosecute and convict traffickers.

Ten African countries slid to the State Department’s tier two watch list this year.

A tier 3 ranking — the lowest level — can have financial consequences. Countries with that rating may face restrictions on non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance from the U.S. The U.S. may also lobby the International Monetary Fund to deny loans to Tier 3 nations.

Half of the 27 nations on the tier 3 list are in Africa, including two fresh demotions this year — Djibouti and Sudan.

The tiny East African nation of Djibouti saw some 90,000 migrants pass through last year — creating opportunities for traffickers preying on vulnerable people. The report criticized Djibouti for not doing more to protect victims.

Sudan, which separated from South Sudan in 2011, saw more trafficking because of movement of people between South Sudan and from heavy flows of African and Syrian refugees through the country. The report also expressed concern over child labor in Sudan.

In 2015, law enforcement agencies across Africa reported the discovery of just over 12,000 victims of trafficking. But as anti-trafficking activists often say, such numbers are under-reported — sometimes because of poor law enforcement, chaos, or because victims do not want to come forward.

South Africa

Anti-trafficking activist Natalie Ogden says the continent’s most developed nation, South Africa, is making strides despite not moving up in the rankings this year.

Ogden founded the Red Light Anti Human Trafficking Initiative, which helps victims of sex trafficking in the South African city of Durban.

She says in South Africa — a magnet for migrants from around the continent — the causes of trafficking are complex.

“Human trafficking is almost a byproduct of various different other social ills within South Africa that haven’t been taken care of,” said Ogden.

The report acknowledges that no nation is without problems — including the U.S. — and that ending trafficking is a difficult task, and one with many complex roots. But the report says it is too important of a problem to ignore.