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How heavy is human trafficking?

Young sex workers stand outside a bar, March 2007. Alcohol and drug use can lower inhibitions, increasing the risk of HIV infection. However, some groups are especially vulnerable - most notably young women. The impact of HIV/AIDS has gone far beyond the
Young sex workers stand outside a bar, March 2007 (Manoocher Deghati/IRIN)

A series of workshops, hosted by the South African government and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), are being held to enlist the support of the media in raising the public profile of human trafficking.

The IOM contends that global human trafficking is worth between US$7 billion and $12 billion dollars annually, making it the third most lucrative criminal activity after the narcotics and weapons trades, although "in contrast to these other criminal activities, however, the penalties for human trafficking in most countries are much less severe, or non-existent."

The workshops, Human Trafficking: Reporting on the Phenomenon in South Africa, are designed to provide the media with the tools "to combat human trafficking by raising awareness of the public through informative, effective and frequent reporting."

The clandestine nature of human trafficking makes the scale of the illicit industry difficult to assess and there are few reliable statistics on the number of persons trafficked in the southern African region, Karen Blackman, spokesperson for the IOM's Southern Africa Counter-Trafficking Assistance Program (SACTAP), told the first of three two-day workshops being held in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

"South Africa is commonly regarded as the main country of destination for trafficked persons in the region," SACTAP said in its brochure. "In many cases, women and children are lured to South Africa with promises of jobs, education or marriage, only to be sold and sexually exploited in the country's major urban centres, or small towns and more rural environments."

''In many cases, women and children are lured to South Africa with promises of jobs, education, or marriage, only to be sold and sexually exploited in the country's major urban centres, or small towns and more rural environments''

On 19 April 2008 Mozambique became the first country of the 14-member regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to enact a law specifically criminalising human trafficking, although 12 SADC countries have ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, which is also known as the Palermo Protocol.

Adopted by the United Nations in Palermo, Italy in 2000, the protocol requires signatories to combat human trafficking and protect and assist victims of trafficking. South Africa is currently developing anti-trafficking legislation.

Blackman told the workshop that three elements had to be present for the activity to be defined as human trafficking: recruitment, deception and exploitation.

The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or of the giving of or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation."

In this context, Blackman said, exploitation included prostitution, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices, and the removal of organs.

Trafficking in history

In the late 1980s the rise of HIV/AIDS and activities such as sex tourism brought the trade under scrutiny. The subject reached the UN General Assembly, and appeared on the agendas of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights and the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women, and governments then began to introduce counter-measures against human trafficking.

However, in a 2006 paper for a think-tank, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS): Getting to Grips with Trafficking, independent researcher Robyn Pharoah pointed out that "the beginning of the contemporary trafficking debate can be traced back to the late 19th century, when the British Pall Mall Gazette published a series of articles on the 'white slave trade'."

The Gazette's scoop recounted stories of abduction, gang rape, and women and children being lured into forced prostitution, creating a wave of revulsion from Europe to the United States.

"It is a matter of debate as to how common the 'white slave trade' actually was, but the [Pall Mall] Gazette's articles created a moral panic and powerfully linked two arguably unrelated topics - prostitution and slavery - in a way that has influenced perceptions of human trafficking ever since."

The scale of human trafficking?

A 2004 report by South Africa's Independent Newspapers alleged that "every year nearly 900,000 people are smuggled across borders as sex slaves, child labourers and illegal organ donors, with 75 percent of them going through South Africa."

Although the report did not name the source of its information, it did highlight the lack of verifiable figures in the debate on human trafficking.

In her research Pharoah recognises this trend, quoting Kamala Kempadoo, Associate Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at York University, Ontario, Canada, and co-author of the book, Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition, who notes that "few eyebrows are raised and figures [on human trafficking] are easily bandied about without question."

Official statistics are not available and "reports on the trade in South Africa draw almost entirely on three pieces of primary research": two reports compiled in 2000 by the children's advocacy group, Molo Songololo, and a 2003 study by the IOM, but only the IOM study attempted to ascertain the numbers involved.

"Using numbers provided by informants in the sex industry and migration figures provided by Statistics South Africa, the authors calculate that between 850 and 1,100 women and children are trafficked to South Africa for the purpose of sexual exploitation annually," Pharoah said.

''The image of human beings being sold into virtual or actual slavery creates a moral imperative to act that seems inhuman to refuse, however, it is far from clear how big an issue trafficking is, either internationally or in South Africa''

"They similarly estimate that at least 1,000 Mozambican women are trafficked into some kind of sexual exploitation in South Africa each year, earning traffickers approximately R1 million [$125,000] annually."

Pharoah acknowledged that "The image of human beings being sold into virtual or actual slavery creates a moral imperative to act that seems inhuman to refuse," however, "it is far from clear how big an issue trafficking is, either internationally or in South Africa."

In an article, Cheap Lives, written in May 2006 in the wake of a South African Law Reform Commission discussion paper on proposed human trafficking legislation, ISS researcher Chandre Gould dismissed the reasoning that the hidden nature of the trade made it inaccessible, while "in the same breath" researchers claimed it generated huge profits.

She said gathering data on human trafficking faced similar obstacles to those that existed in determining the extent of forced migration.

"In both cases victims are hard to access and identify, may speak a language that is not native to the country in which they end up, and may be involved in hidden criminal activity. Although these constraints present researchers with a formidable challenge, particularly when doing quantitative research, they cannot be ignored when designing methodologies."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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