At any given time, an estimated 130,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in forced labour as a result of trafficking. It is a fraction of the global figure, which the International Labour Organization (ILO) puts at 2.5 million, but this highly lucrative and concealed crime is on the rise in Africa and traffickers usually operate with impunity.
Southern Africa has many of the conditions traffickers capitalize on: endemic poverty and unemployment that create a demand for better opportunities, and high rates of regular and irregular migration that mask the movements of traffickers and their victims.
The region has no shortage of protocols, frameworks and action plans for dealing with human trafficking, but the net result of all these agreements has been no more than a handful of prosecutions.
"African countries are more than happy to sign documents and attend conferences, but step out of the room and they're happy to have lunch and forget about it," said Ottilia Maunganidze, a researcher on the International Crime in Africa Programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
Maunganidze was addressing a roomful of experts and government officials mainly from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) who gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, recently to look at ways of turning commitments to counter human trafficking into action.
The key international framework for combating this crime is the 2000 UN protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, also known as the Palermo Protocol. Its lengthy definition of human trafficking includes “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…for the purpose of exploitation.” Twelve of the SADC's 15 member states have ratified the protocol, which committed them to enact legislation to make human trafficking a criminal offence.
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More than a decade later, only six have passed comprehensive laws. Several others have partial laws or, in the case of South Africa, bills waiting to be passed, while five countries lack any specific legislation.
"If trafficking is not a crime in your country, everything else is symptomatic," warned Johan Kruger of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Maunganidze pointed out that merely passing legislation is not enough. Mozambique has passed legislation, but has never prosecuted a case. "Criminalisation has to happen in practice," she told the meeting.
This means developing national action plans that involve social workers, medical professionals, public prosecutors and the police; establishing a central anti-trafficking unit; allocating resources to assisting victims; and signing bilateral and multilateral agreements with the countries victims originate from and pass through.
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SADC countries adopted a 10-year strategic plan of action to combat trafficking in persons in 2009 that incorporates many of these measures. There is also a protocol on gender and development with a deadline of 2015 to put in place measures to eradicate trafficking. Maunganidze says this is "probably very idealistic", and cites the difficulty of identifying and addressing some of the root causes of trafficking, as well as the limited resources and political will so far devoted to responses.
Most trafficking in southern Africa is for the purpose of sexual exploitation, but trafficking for forced labour is growing and is even more hidden, according to Bernardo Mariano-Joaquim, regional representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Criminal syndicates are usually engaged in these activities, and many people still lack a clear understanding of what trafficking is, adding to the difficulty of detection and prosecution. "Organized crime can't be prosecuted in the same fashion as other crimes," said Kruger. "You have to connect the dots, you need proactive intelligence and international cooperation."
"In Africa, we're making some progress in creating an environment to assist victims, but where we need more work is prosecutions," Mariano-Joaquim told IRIN. "Prosecution is lagging behind the identification of victims, and even prevention."
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