Millions suffer curse of latter-day slavery

Saumu Juma*, 30, jumped headlong at the chance to earning Sh46,000 every month working as a tailor in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The job had been promised by an informal employment agent who was a friend of her mother. 

Three months into the job, she was “auctioned” . She was raped and forced to have sex with  her employer’s male friends and relatives.

Saumu is just one of the estimated 20.9 million adults and children who are bought and sold worldwide into sex slavery, forced or bonded labour.

Sexual exploitation

The United Nations office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says an estimated 27 million people are caught up in modern-day slavery while about 800,000 people trafficked across international borders annually. About one million children are exploited by the commercial sex industry.

“A majority of the women and girls — 80 per cent — are trafficked for sexual exploitation,” says Amado Philip de Andres, UNODC regional representative for Eastern Africa.

Kenya, is right at the centre of the Sh15 trillion (US$150 billion) human trafficking industry because it is a source,  destination and transit point for cartels.

The actual number of victims of modern slavery, including sex trafficking, are not known. However, the Global Slavery Index estimates that at least 328,000 people in Kenya are victims of modern slavery. This translates to seven out of 1,000 people.

A recent report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) singles out the Coast region as one of the areas that human traffickers target.

The assessment report on the human trafficking situation in the Coast region cites poverty, illiteracy, drug abuse, loss of parents, harmful cultural practices and radicalisation as some of the factors that contribute to increased cases of trafficking.

While many trafficking agents escape justice, survivors of trafficking are often treated as criminals.

Jedidah Waruhiu, a commissioner with the Kenya National Human Rights Commission (KNHRC), says they regularly receives petitions from trafficking survivors who have been jailed for being in the country illegally while those who financed and smuggled them get off scot-free.

This year alone, KNHRC has received 242 petitions from people who are victims of trafficking but are languishing in custody.

“People who are arrested are usually those who are being trafficked. Why don’t we see the lorry driver, the owners of the vehicles that ferry victims, the employment agent, facing the law?,” Waruhiu poses.

The 2017 Trafficking in persons report by the US State Department, pointed out failure by Kenya to fully meet the minimum requirements for the elimination of trafficking. Concerns cited include the government’s reluctance to arrest and prosecute government officials who corruptly issue identification documents to traffickers despite availability of credible evidence.

Shoddy investigations

“Prosecutors continued to charge some defendants with immigration violations or labour exploitation instead of human trafficking as the former crimes were deemed easier to prove and less financially costly than the latter,” the report says.

In other instances, human trafficking suspects have been convicted, but released on appeal due to shoddy investigations.

An example is Muhammad Assif who was accused of trafficking 11 adults at Upper Kapiti Estate in Athi River sub-county, Machakos county. He was sentenced to  five years in prison and pay a fine of Sh5 million in default. The July 2016 sentence was overturned by the Machakos High Court on the grounds that his name and that appearing on the charge sheet were different— Assif instead of Ashif in the charge sheet!

In another instance, Kenneth Ronoh successfully appealed a 15-year sentence for trafficking a 15-year-old girl for sexual exploitation in Brazil because the prosecution failed to prove its case.

Directorate of Criminal Investigations boss George Kinoti says the government has allocated Sh60 million for the implementation of the National Referral Mechanism launched in 2016 and whose objective is to provide assistance for victims of human trafficking.

Other interventions include the establishment of a Victims Assistance Fund to help in the repatriation of trafficking victims. The government has also set up a monthly digital law enforcement data tracking system to monitor and keep on top of the incidents or reports of trafficking.

The former chairman of the Victims Assistance Fund Board, Japheth Kasimbu, accused the government of paying lip service to efforts to support victims of trafficking.

Kasimba and the Board Treasurer, Susan Kasinga resigned in July citing frustrations by the government. The Board’s three-year term expired last month, having met only once. The Board is responsible for taking care of trafficking victims by providing safe houses, counselling and helping them rebuild their lives.

“There is no willingness from the government to support counter-trafficking efforts. The Sh60 million that was set aside for the implementation of the National Referral Mechanism was never given to the board, despite several requests. The last time I inquired about it I was told only Sh11 million was available. I decided to quit,” Kasinga said.

Among steps taken to stem trafficking is the deregistration of employment agencies which are a front for trafficking cartels. Only 66 employment agencies have been accredited by the National Employment Agency.

Majority of those who find themselves trafficked for bonded servitude or sex in the Gulf countries are usually those who get the jobs through informal agents referred to them by their relatives or friends.

Labour attaches in the Kenyan diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arabs Emirates do not have sufficient resources to assist the victims. In many instances, the victims are held in detention centres until their families can afford to buy them return tickets.

Emerging trends

Lack of safe houses means  foreign victims of trafficking are held in police or prison custody until their governments or families buy their tickets. The 148 trafficking survivors rescued between January and July this year have had to depend on the assistance of organisations such as The Awareness Against Human Trafficking (Haart Kenya) as they await their repatriation.

Recent raids in Kenya are an indication of an emerging trend were women from India and China are being trafficked in increasing numbers. Those trafficked from India work in mujra or bangla dance clubs in Nairobi or Mombasa while those from China are promised work in casinos but end up working as sex workers in brothels or work camps run by the Chinese. The women, faced with debt bondage, are forced to pay it off performing sex acts.

Another trend is where young people are being targeted through social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Twitter.

The traffickers befriend would-be victims using aliases and with promises to offer them jobs or a relationship. Social media is used at every stage of trafficking— from recruitment to grooming them for sex work to getting clients.

The use of boda bodas  in trafficking is a new phenomenon aimed at passage of victims through unofficial border crossings, which makes identifying potential trafficking situations more difficult.

The anti-trafficking war has been complicated by the disjointed efforts by government agencies and non-governmental organisations. At the international level, players are concentrating efforts on coming up with protocols against trafficking while those at the forefront of fighting the global trafficking syndicates are under-resourced, under-equipped and outnumbered.

“Lack of understanding of the real situation at the international level is hampering the fight. We need to put resources where they work most effectively,” Ugandan Deputy Head of Mission to Kenya, Nathan Ndoboli says.

*For purposes of victim protection, working under the principle of do no harm, the names and designation employed here are not real.

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