On 19 January, the BBC reported the decision of a court in Abu Dhabi, to send 13 Syrians, all but one of whom were men, to prison for trafficking Moroccan women to work as prostitutes in the United Arab Emirates.
Seven of the men were sentenced to life terms. The five other men and the sole woman defendant were jailed for 10 years each.
The case brings to the fore the reality of human trafficking and the tendency for it to assume trans-national dimensions. Available evidence indicates that this did not arise from an isolated event, but is a fortuitous symptom of an enduring human tragedy. In a sense, the Abu Dhabi trial conjures up images of the situation in our own backyard of Southern Africa. Parallels can be drawn between the underlying facts and some cases from our region. Among the elements involved in the case were:
• the deception of the girls into believing that well paid, lawful jobs had been arranged for them in the United Arab Emirates
• payment for the trip by a sponsor or sponsors unknown to the girls
• the use of a domestic worker, apparently to give ‘peer recommendation' that the arrangements were legitimate and safe
• the ill-treatment, in some cases amounting to torture, of the girls once they found themselves in Abu Dhabi, and
• the pressure on the girls to work as prostitutes in order to raise and re-pay the expenses of securing their passage from Morocco.
As the global economic meltdown, and its regional manifestations, have continued to exact a heavy toll on the socio-economic fabric of all countries in southern Africa, the exploitation of migrants in transactions of commercial sex, domestic servitude, and forced agricultural labour has continued to escalate. For interest groups, such as humanitarian organisations, research institutions and policing agencies, the search for the hubs of human trafficking in the region continues. Much more is known about the patterns of human trafficking than was perhaps the case a year ago.
We know of large-scale movements of migrants from the Horn of Africa, to the ‘eastern seaboard' territories of Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. A proportion of them travel through these countries and eventually end up in South Africa. Significant numbers of migrants from the Horn of Africa have passed through Swaziland. One is also aware of the transit of large numbers of migrants originating from Pakistan and Bangladesh to South Africa through Botswana. Some of these migrants divert from the expected trajectory and wind up in Western Europe. A well-established trend is the movement of Zimbabweans southwards to South Africa and Botswana. So is the southward movement of Mozambicans to South Africa. While migration trends are visible, the underlying incentives that continue to drive it are not as clear. Partly because of this, there continues to be much speculation.
The exploitation of young women in street-level sex work in urban South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland is well known. Exploitative labour practices on farms in these countries are an established fact. The deployment of boys and young men in cross-border trade on the border between Angola and Namibia has existed for quite a while. In an article published on 18 January, 2010, the Times magazine asserts that ‘...more than 500 mostly small-scale trafficking syndicates - Nigerian, Chinese, Indian and Russian, among others - collude with South African partners, including recruiters and corrupt police officials, to enslave local victims.'
The number of syndicates implicated seems exaggerated, a possibility acknowledged by one of the sources relied on by the author.
At the level of rhetoric, southern Africa countries maintain a condemnatory attitude to human trafficking. This has not necessarily prompted them to criminalise the practise, or to take complementary steps to ensure that none of them stands out as a weak link in confronting human trafficking. This may well be because of the lack of information on trends and culprits. It appears however that there are ample indicators that certain practices are occurring in the region that should justify the adoption of a more robust response to illegal migration. In the process, human trafficking, as a by-product of illegal migration, would also be exposed and reduced. The following should be cause for concern:
• the apparent collusive deals between public officials in gate-keeping positions, such as immigration departments, and sponsors of illegal migration - which facilitates the manipulation of migration regulations. Such evidence should at least prompt the authorities to place immigration departments under tight supervision or security surveillance
• the continuation of fragile borders that can be breached effortlessly
• the highly exploitative labour arrangements in the crop-farming agricultural zones in border areas. Studies indicate that the risk of trafficked labour in the livestock farming areas is negligible
• the high numbers of migrants from Asian countries residing for short spells in countries such as Botswana and Namibia, apparently while they prepare to move on to intended destination
• the high proportion of desperate children among migrant communities
There is no indication that there will be greater speed in the adoption of a framework of measures against illegal migration and/or human trafficking across the region. As a way of getting to a common position, some have advocated the adoption of a regional instrument - in the form of a regional Protocol along the lines of the SADC Protocol against Corruption. The hope is that the ratification processes prompted by the protocol would give impetus to measures to combat human trafficking. There might be merit in this suggestion, but only if it will provoke a discussion that encompasses human trafficking in its comprehensive form; in other words, domestic as well as cross-border forms of human trafficking. Only a framework against human trafficking that evolves and radiates from the domestic, country-level, to the international sphere is likely to be effective. Such a framework has to find a way of traversing some lingering cultural practices that tend to promote outdated forms of servitude in parts of southern Africa.
At the domestic level, all governments in Southern Africa need to demonstrate political will to combat human trafficking by conducting detailed studies of illegal migration involving their territories, regardless of whether they are sources, transit territories or destinations of migrants.
Written by: Charles Goredema, Programme Head, Organised Crime & Money Laundering Programme, ISS Cape Town