In September 2020 a video shared on social media showed a man appearing to try to snatch a child from a restaurant in the Roodepoort area of Johannesburg, South Africa. The incident was widely discussed, with several claims made publicly about the prevalence of child trafficking.
Some said specific places in South Africa were trafficking hotspots while others circulated videos supposed to show other instances of attempted child trafficking. The debate also drew comment from the South African police.
TV presenter and DJ Lerato Kganyago weighed in, sharing a startling estimate.
“South Africa is considered to be on the ‘Tier 2 Watchlist’ for human trafficking. At least A MILLION kids are trafficked each year,” she tweeted to her 1.2-million followers on 14 September.
According to advocacy groups, human trafficking is rife in South Africa. One such group, the Salvation Army, says this is because of high levels of poverty and inequality, which leave people vulnerable to exploitation.
But are Kganyago’s claims about the magnitude of the problem backed by evidence?
Claim: At least a million children are trafficked each year in South Africa
When asked by other Twitter users for the source of this claim, Kganyago tweeted: “Under UN or google human trafficking in South Africa. That should help you.”
The closest United Nations statistic we could find was a Unicef estimate that 1.2-million children were trafficked globally in 2000. We have not found any other sources showing that the global body estimated as many as one million children were trafficked annually in South Africa alone.
We have previously fact-checked similar claims about what is an emotive topic. In 2013 we found a claim that at least 30 000 children were trafficked annually in South Africa to be unsupported. But like a zombie, that figure won’t die, and has been repeated over the years. We’ve also found no evidence for another popular claim that a child is kidnapped every 30 seconds in South Africa.
Has any new evidence come to light?
What qualifies as human trafficking?
Human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbour or receipt of persons, using threat, coercion, abduction or fraud, for the purpose of exploitation, according to the United Nations.
To be considered human trafficking, a situation must meet the following criteria: an action such as recruitment or abduction, the means such as threat or coercion, and the purpose, namely exploitation. For trafficking of children, the means is not a requirement.
South Africa is a signatory to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, also known as the Palermo Protocol. The country is therefore obligated to address human trafficking, enforce laws punishing offenders, and provide assistance to victims.
In 2013 South Africa signed into law the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act. This defines human trafficking in the same way as the UN and includes forced marriage under the term. The law says exploitation includes sexual exploitation, forced labour, child labour and all forms of slavery. The South African law defines a child as a person under 18.
Undocumented immigrants who choose to enter the country illegally and adults who choose to participate in sex work are not considered trafficked persons. (Note: For even more details on trafficking in South Africa, read our factsheet.)
Most human trafficking is within borders of countries of origin
Due to the hidden nature of the crime, different legislations and that victims can find it uncomfortable to talk about it, accurate counts of people who have been trafficked are difficult to come by.
In its most recent Trafficking in Persons report, the US state department, responsible for carrying out foreign policy and international relations, estimated that in 2018 some 24.9-million people were being trafficked worldwide.
The June 2019 report found that trafficking was most common in sectors such as the commercial sex industry, farming, construction, manufacturing and mining. The department also estimated that between 600 000 and 800 000 people were trafficked across borders worldwide each year. However, this estimate dated from 2005.
Notably, the report found that domestic trafficking is prevalent and around 77% of victims are exploited within their countries of origin.
In 2018 the report found South African authorities had identified 260 victims of trafficking, from 399 the previous year. Of the 260 victims, 244 were foreign nationals. 201 were men, 21 were women, 34 were boys, three were girls and one was of an unknown gender.
Most of the victims – 238 – were exploited for forced labour. Twenty were exploited for sex work, and two for an unknown type of trafficking.
No ‘clear or centralised data’ available
ECPAT is an international non-profit organisation that does research and advocacy work for children trafficked for sexual exploitation. It has published reports on child trafficking in South Africa.
Mark Kavenagh, head of research at ECPAT, told Africa Check there is a lack of publicly available data on child trafficking.
“There simply isn’t clear or centralised data collected or publicly available” to determine the number of children trafficked each year, he said, adding that the organisation has called for this data.
Kavanagh said that the known instances of human trafficking that are prosecuted are a fraction of the crimes that occur.
Sensationalised reports of child trafficking obscure other issues
Dr Rebecca Walker is a research associate at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
In her 2020 report Child Trafficking in South Africa: Exploring Myths and Realities, Walker argues that other crimes such as smuggling – which refers to migrants who pay to be transported into countries illegally – are often conflated with human trafficking, making estimates even less reliable.
And in the absence of data, claims about the number of children who are trafficked are largely unsubstantiated, exaggerated and sensationalised, she said.
The reliable data that does exist indicates there are relatively few cases of child trafficking, and even fewer cases of children being trafficked into the sex industry.
“In the literature reporting on the realities of children on the move, there is little substantial evidence to suggest that child trafficking is widespread,” Walker wrote.
Walker told Africa Check that sensationalised reports of child trafficking obscure the more common and complex issues that children face while crossing borders, such as a lack of documentation and access to information. This can make children more vulnerable to exploitation.
“It’s far easier to talk about children being trafficked than it is to talk about state culpability in denying children documentation and it increasing the risks that they face,” she said.
This data challenge has concerned experts for years.
Writing in The Conversation in 2015, Marcel van der Watt, lecturer in police practice at the University of South Africa described the lack of reliable data as “an elusive statistical nightmare”.
While inflated estimates are often used by those looking to highlight a social problem, they also “create a credibility dilemma, detract from a constructive conversation and frustrate efforts to understand the multi-layered realities of the problem”, said Van der Watt.
In her report, Walker said the confusion could also be used to justify repressive laws and inform political decisions on migration policy.
In the absence of any data that comes close to substantiating that one million children are trafficked yearly in South Africa, we rate the claim as exaggerated.
Claim: South Africa is considered to be on the ‘Tier 2 Watchlist’ for human trafficking
South Africa is considered a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking. The US government has classified it as a tier two watchlist country.
Tiers are not determined by how big a country’s trafficking problem is but by its efforts to counter the problem. There are four tiers:
Tier one countries fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
Tier two countries do not fully meet minimum standards but are making significant efforts to do so.
Tier two watchlist countries are those where the number of victims is increasing or is significantly increasing, and where there isn’t evidence of increasing efforts to tackle this.
Tier three countries do not meet minimum standards and are making no effort to do so.
South Africa’s classification means that, according to the US, the government does “not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so”.
The country was however demoted from tier two to tier two watchlist because it did not make continual efforts to address human trafficking, largely due to insufficient funding and lower levels of prosecution compared to previous years.
Researched by Naledi Mashishi, Africa Check, a non-partisan fact-checking organisation. View the original piece on their website