(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Human trafficking on the upswing

Zimbabwe border.
Guy Oliver/IRIN

The victims of human trafficking in Southern Africa are often invisible because many countries in the region have failed to implement laws to combat it, Hans Petter Boe, Regional Representative for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said in his opening remarks at a conference in the South African port city of Durban.

"The needs of victims of human trafficking are unique compared to those of other victims of abuse. Because many countries in the region have yet to legislate comprehensive anti-trafficking laws, many of these victims fall through the cracks," Boe told a regional workshop to protect victims of human trafficking.

The conference, titled 'Migration Dialogue for Southern Africa' was hosted by the IOM and the Southern African Migration Project, which aims to facilitate regional dialogue and cooperation on migration policy issues, and attended by civil society and government representatives from the Southern African Development Community.

Boe congratulated Mozambique for recently passing its first law geared specifically to combat human trafficking. "A great advance, to be emulated by other countries in the region," he said.

Lack of legislation has allowed traffickers to either escape prosecution or only be convicted of such crimes as rape, abduction or fraud, but beyond this
there are few national or regional mechanisms that afford the victims of trafficking any protection.

Poor intelligence on the numbers of people trafficked and the inherently clandestine nature of the activity mean the traffickers usually ply their harmful trade without fear of repercussion.

According to the IOM, trafficked persons often find themselves in situations where they are held against their will, their documents are taken from them, and they are abused and kept captive by reason of the debt they incurred while being taken across borders. It is made virtually impossible for them ever to repay this debt.

The UN protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, defines trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons by improper means, such as force, abduction, fraud or coercion, for an improper use or purpose, like forced labour, servitude, slavery or sexual exploitation. Countries that ratify the protocol are obliged to enact domestic laws making these activities criminal offences, if such laws are not already in place

Vulnerable people

Trafficked people are highly vulnerable: they have been brought into a country illegally, so they are reluctant to seek help from the authorities, fearing that they will be treated as illegal immigrants or criminals.

"Victims of human trafficking are exposed to extreme forms of dehumanisation and exploitation," Malusi Gigaba, the South African Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, a keynote speaker at the three-day conference, told IRIN.

"They are transported through a well-oiled trafficking system, using intricate and extensive networks to transport their 'human cargo'", Gigaba said.

Although the incidence of human trafficking is believed to be growing, accurate information on the extent of the trade remains elusive. The invisibility of the trade makes it difficult for countries in the region to allocate resources to anti-trafficking initiatives in the face of a host of other social problems, such as health care and poverty-related issues.

"All indications are that there are more and more people being trafficked, in particular in our region," Gigaba said. Steadily climbing migration flows and rising crime in southern Africa mean "there is now greater need for cooperation and urgency in combating [human trafficking] and providing protection to those that are most vulnerable," he told the delegates.

"It is good that the victims are getting more attention - human trafficking is a human rights issue; the women, the children, who are victims of human trafficking, deserve better treatment," Gigaba said.

"We cannot afford any more talk-shops that yield no outcomes. The action-steps are there; no one can claim to be clueless about what to do," he said.

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