I Dreamed of a Better Life
With many people searching for an escape from poverty; the path in search of a better life does not always turn out as intended and is fraught with dubious characters and heartache By Shreya Karia
Assured of KSH24,000 a month, housing and airfare Njeri* took on a job as a hotel housekeeper in Saudi Arabia. Her hope of opportunity and comfort quickly turned to calamity. Instead, she found herself imprisoned as a domestic worker with her basic human rights violated. Forced to work more than 18 hours each day, with little food and no access to healthcare or outside contact, this was far from the job she had been promised. Denied the right to practice her faith Njeri was subjected to gruelling physical and mental abuse on a frequent basis.
A Real Problem
The story of Njeri is not unique. On average 2.4 million young women, men and children are trapped at any given time in what has been described as ‘modern day slavery’. Imprisoned against their will by brutal employers, they are forced to work in factories or farms, coerced into prostitution or begging, fearful of the consequences if they do not obey.
Human trafficking, the ugly face of globalisation, is a shameful tarnish on our fundamental conviction that all people everywhere deserve the right to live and work with safety and dignity. Such is the complexity of the issue that Interpol places its gravity on par with the cross border trafficking of illegal drugs and firearms.
Too Good to be True
On a journey of a life-time, paid for by her ‘foreign boyfriend’, Lucy was to spend three months in Germany. She felt extremely lucky to have met someone who would show her a life she had never seen. And such a life it was! Instead of showering her with culture and pizaz, Lucy’s boyfriend had brought Lucy to work as a sex slave. Confiscating her travel documents he denied her food for many days. When she didn’t obey him and his partners, they would torment her; viciously beaten and constantly raped Lucy was living her worst nightmare. “Some of the things I experienced... were beyond human imagination, you can only wish they were scenes in a horror movie,” she recalls. A chance opportunity gave her the courage to contact the German police. Rescued and taken to a safe house it has taken many months of counselling and rehabilitation to help overcome the atrocities she faced. Lucy was brave enough to testify against her tormentors who were subsequently charged with sexual assault. In many cases such as these, where young women have been trafficked to Europe, the IOM has had to utilise its strong network base to ensure their safe return. This is not always easy and there is not always a clear path. Solwodi, an organisation based at the coast, works closely to identify and repatriate girls, like Lucy, trafficked to Europe and forced into prostitution. Through their efforts several women have returned safely home.
For victims who have faced physical and psychological torture, repatriation does not end the emotional trauma. Returning to Kenya with no money, Njeri felt ashamed at the prospect of having disappointed her family. Frustrated and disheartened she contemplated suicide. Protection, rehabilitation into society and prosecution where possible, form a crucial element of the counter trafficking programme, highlights Alice. The unfortunate reality however, is that Kenya currently lacks adequate shelter facilities for victims. Whilst the IOM does work with private charities and faith based organisations to shelter women, few facilities assist young men.
The facilities and recourses for justice for children caught up in trafficking are even more dire. The post-election crisis of 2007 has created the perfect condition for traffickers to take advantage of those orphaned. Child labour amongst Naivasha’s flower farms has hit alarmingly high levels, where many young girls are taken to work as cheap labour, then used by male workers for sex or as concubines.
Sofia Rajad, Project Manager for CRADLE, an NGO that specifically addresses the gap in the Kenyan juvenile justice system, notes that there is significant pressure on capacity in the few child shelters around the country. There is the constant strain to keep shelter stays as short as possible so as to accommodate the many victims.
Yet, there is concerted effort to ensure that victims go through the entire legal process, which can often be very lengthy. It is a struggle balancing the two. Sofia has seen many worst-case scenarios, where child victims are committed to remand homes for lack of a better alternative. Although much of CRADLE’s work is made possible from generous funding, most overseas donors are hesitant to set up and get involved in the running of a shelter. And rightly so; as a progressive community the onus should lie on Kenyans to look out for the future generation.
At present there does not exist a specialised centre that facilitates all the needs of trafficked children from a medical, psychological and legal perspective, notes Sofia. The need to develop such amenities has become much more a necessity than previously. In recent months, countless children from neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda have been lured by trustworthy relatives into begging and hard labour, under the falsehood of a better education. There have been numerous cases where kids end up in Nairobi, Nakuru or even Naivasha working against their will. A campaign to halt child labour in the agricultural sector by the Solidarity Centre and the Kenyan Plantation Union aims at directly targeting parents to keep their children in school through an incentivised programme, awareness workshops and working directly with farms to ensure that their workplace policies do not become a conduit for child labour.
So What’s being Done?
As part of the Kenyan government’s efforts to combat human trafficking, a five-year national plan of action was initiated in 2008. A national steering committee consisting of CRADLE, the Ministry of Youth, the Law Society of Kenya and other stakeholders identified strategic priorities and agendas that each body ought to initiate. According to Sofia, there is the political will to further the cause. Through the efforts of MP Millie Odhiambo, the Kenyan government signed into law new legislation to crack down on offenders and offer some form of recourse to victims in late 2010. Convicted traffickers face a 30 year jail term or a hefty KSH30 million fine. The law now clearly defines the role of each stakeholder, which means unlike previously, bodies can be held legally accountable for not following through on counter trafficking measures.
Still More to Do
The challenge however, lies on the ground to ensure that police, prosecutors and child care workers are aware of the legal implications and technicalities. NGOs such as IOM and CRADLE become indispensible for this. Conducting a simple test to see just how effective government measures are, resulted in a trip to the local District Commissionaires office in Westlands to report a case of child trafficking. Filled with great optimism that I would encounter a receptive welcome, instead I found the child welfare worker had left for the day at 2:30PM. I was neither able to get her number nor obtain anyone else’s assistance. Instead I was requested to fill out a visitor’s book, I was repeatedly assured that she would call. I am still waiting. Incidentally the visitor’s book told a similar story; NGOs, donors and general public, all either paying a courtesy call to discuss programme initiatives or ask for assistance. The reality? No legislature
or advisory board can make a difference if there is no will on the ground to challenge the status quo.
And yet human trafficking is not just a pandemic affecting Kenya. It is a global enterprise worth US$32 billion. It affects every country on the planet, where helpless people find themselves traded for domestic servitude, sexual exploitation or child soldiering. In recognition of these harrowing statistics the UN launched a global action plan to combat the scourge through UNGIFT (United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking). It encourages member states to work together to strengthen the prevention and protection of those trapped. Part of the programme facilitates for a global fund to rehabilitate victims.
In an age where ‘the celebrity phenomenon’ dictates much of our perception, Oscar winning film, Slum Dog Millionaire, put the topic front and centre in a manner that no institution had previously succeeded in doing. DNA, a foundation conceived by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, focuses on child counter trafficking efforts. Their campaign, ‘Real Men Don’t Buy Girls’, has Hollywood heavyweights, including Justin Timberlake, Bradley Cooper and Jamie Foxx, adding their voices to the global awareness movement that is increasingly gathering momentum.
Since its inception, the annual Ford Supermodel of the World search has strived to help protect young women and men around the world. For the past four years their aim has been to inform young people on the threats of human trafficking. According to Lyndsey McIntyre, owner of Surazuri and representative of the search locally, modelling is just one of the ways in which attractive women are ‘lured’ into the human trafficking trade overseas. Her agency plays a pivotal role in educating girls on the very real dangers that exist and how to avoid the pitfalls, including rape prevention.
On occasion she has had to rescue girls from overseas; an ex-participant in danger of falling into prostitution in South Africa, when all her belongings were stolen, turned to Lyndsey for assistance. “I managed to raise a substantial sum of money, got it down to her to help get a new passport and make her way back to Kenya,” she recalls. Stories such as these are not uncommon, particularly when impoverished young women are enticed with the promise of a wealthy lifestyle and bright city lights. Having been in the industry since 1986, she has been an advocate for safe practices ensuring models are not roped into such false modelling contracts.
Lyndsey’s tale reveals the stark facts of the matter. 80% of human trafficking is a cross border affliction, carried out by masterminds who identify and take advantage of loopholes. Their meticulous knowledge of the immigration workings within country to country enables them to outwit the system. Having worked in the human rights field for numerous years Sofia is quick to point out that for any measure to be effective the entire region needs to work as a whole. Currently victims of cross border trafficking have limited recourse to justice and protection due to the lack of mutual legal assistance. At best, their repatriation home is all that can be guaranteed. Ultimately there is nothing preventing these victims from falling prey all over again. In the East African region, Kenya is ahead of its neighbours in creating a sustainable legal framework. But whilst crucial steps have been taken, in truth we are still on a long path to seeing a streamlined strategy with resources and judicial systems aligned that prevent criminals from border crossing with ease.
Eunia, a young girl living in Korogocho was sent by her mother to run errands in Nairobi. Seizing an opportunity, a tout tried to confuse and lure Eunia onto a matatu headed to Loitokitok. Sensing that something was amiss, a good samaritan convinced Eunia to instead come home with her where she could safely be returned to her family. Through police interrogation and the ‘samaritan’s’ intervention, it was established that this was a situation of aborted child trafficking – Loitokitok has had many record cases of child abuse in recent years.
Just like Eunia’s benefactor, the general public can play a crucial role in curbing human trafficking. According to Alice Kimani, by being alert and aware we can spot unusual occurrences. Ask yourself does this scenario seem genuine? In the case of children, Alice strongly advises contacting the police or government child welfare workers to assess a situation. Ask yourself why a child is working the streets in the middle of the day instead of being at school. Likewise, follow ethical employment practices; children should not be hired for domestic servitude.
For those looking to migrate overseas because of a better job opportunity, do the research. Is the agent you are dealing with legitimate? Do they have adequate and accurate information about the job you are being promised? Once again Alice advocates vigilance in ‘travelling safe’. Keep multiple copies of your passports and other documents with family and yourself, register with your embassy on arrival and know the emergency hotline numbers. But always remember, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
Throughout my investigations, the one certainty that has been unearthed is that human trafficking does not end itself. Nor is it adequate to presuppose responsibility lies with a few stakeholders. As responsible members of our communities, each person has a significant role to play. Whether through awareness raising on the pitfalls of being lured into elicit work or highlighting the effects of the trafficking trade every contribution counts. Playing our part to keep children in school or contacting authorities in situations that do not appear just, can save a life. The private sector and business communities can especially yield extensive influence by adopting no tolerance employment policies that push for fair pay, humane working conditions and above all, zero clemency for child exploitation. It is our obligation to see that people like Njeri and Lucy who dream of a better life obtain it with dignity.