With many people searching for an escape from poverty, civil war, political instability and income disparity; the search for a better life can become a powerful push for people to become susceptible to the lure offered by modern day slave masters; the perpetrators of human trafficking. By Shreya Karia and Florence Wambui
crime that shames us all

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 subjected 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.

Assured of KSH24,000 a month, including complimentary housing and airfare, Njeri* accepted the job as a hotel housekeeper in Saudi Arabia, dreams of money in her pocket and a comfortable living spurring her on. However, her hope of the positive, life changing opportunity for herself and her family, quickly turned to a calamity. Njeri 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 a far cry from the job she had been promised or envisioned. Denied the right to practice her faith, Njeri was subjected to gruelling physical and mental abuse on a frequent basis.

The stories of Njeri and Lucy are not unique. Many Kenyans have migrated to the Middle East, other East African nations and Europe in search of employment and better opportunities and have ended up becoming victims of human trafficking; where they are exploited in domestic servitude, prostitution and forced manual labour.

According to a 2012 report from the International Labour Ogranisation (ILM), there is on average, 21 million young women, men and children, worldwide, 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.

Global Scourge

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.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) defines trafficking as the “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, for the purpose of exploitation,” primarily for sex or forced labour. Over the past decade, human trafficking has become one of the major concerns of the international community.

amnesty international members

Amnesty International members protest human trafficking.

Just five months shy of the designated “Human Trafficking Awareness” month which was commemorated in January 2015, in an effort to make the issue of human trafficking more visible and to encourage change, both local and international media has been abuzz with the unfolding crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, with stories and images of the many lives of vulnerable women, men and children who were lost at sea, as they attempted to find a better life for themselves.

The migrant crisis in Europe has caused the issue of human trafficking to be on the public radar screen once again as world leaders try to mitigate the Mediterranean issue. The recent increase in the number of people attempting to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, has resulted in a larger number of people trying to make the risky crossing in unseaworthy vessels. While the Mediterranean catastrophe may be indeed an issue of people smuggling on a mammoth scale, the threat that these smuggled migrants could become victims of trafficking is very high and very probable.

In Our Back Yard

A report by the UNODC based on data gathered from 155 countries, puts down sexual exploitation as the most common form of human trafficking (79%). Forced labour comes in second at 18%. The report goes on to note that worldwide, almost 20% of all trafficking victims are children while in some parts of Africa, children are the majority up to 100%.

We may very well be up to speed with the Mediterranean crisis or even well informed on human trafficking stories in far-flung countries such as Cambodia or India, where children are prime victims for sex trafficking, or where victims are moved across continents as in the cases of Njeri and Lucy. However, there is a lot more exploitation taking place close to home, where adults and especially children are coerced into the sex trade or into working against their will.

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 an aborted child trafficking incident– Loitokitok has had many recorded cases of child abuse in recent years.

Take the story of Sophie Otiende, whose story was published in a local daily. When her family fell on hard times, Sophie at 13 years old, was sent to a boarding school in Kakamega. Her parents entrusted her into the care of her uncle who promised to ensure that she attended school. Each month her parents would send money for her upkeep and each month, Sophie’s uncle would keep her home where she was forced to carry out domestic chores and where she was also subjected to sexual abuse. With no means to communicate to her parents, Sophie resigned to her fate, until a chance opportunity when she ran into an old family friend, aided her chance of escape. Sophie is now a grassroots campaigner with Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART Kenya) an organisation that is working to end human trafficking in Kenya.

In April 2015, the Standard newspaper reported on how poor teenage girls, many of whom don’t speak English, are brought to Nairobi from villages in India and Nepal under the guise to work as Mujra dancers. The girls enter the county on a tourist visa under the pretense of visiting ‘relatives’, but instead end up working in secret as dancers, prostitutes and as sex slaves to rich Asian businessmen. Stories of parents, hiring out their children for sex, in return for payment are ten fold, especially on the Kenyan coast where sex tourism is proliferating.

According to CRADLE, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that specifically addresses the gap in the Kenyan juvenile justice system, about 1,500 minors frequent “sex spots” at the Kenyan coast.

Ruined Lives

Kenya, has been identified as a source, transit and endpoint for men, women, and children subjected to human trafficking and as a result, has been placed on Tier 2 of the U.S. State Department trafficking list for the last three years, for failing to make serious efforts to tackle the problem.

Within the country, the numbers of Kenyan children, who are the most vulnerable and who are forced into labour in domestic service, begging, and exploitation through prostitution – including sex tourism – is increasing at an alarming rate.

billboard - fight against human trafficking

A billboard encouraging young women to fight against prostitution and human trafficking, on the university campus in Benin City, Nigeria.

The post-election crisis of 2007/08 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.

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 incentivized programme, awareness workshops and working directly with farms to ensure that their workplace policies do not become a conduit for child labour.

Is Law Enough?

Since 2005, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has been working within Kenya to raise awareness amongst communities through capacity building. Through its advisory role, the IOM educates and helps governmental ministries put in place, measures that can prevent and protect. On average, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs receives up to two cases every hour of those trapped abroad and in need of assistance. Whilst they have an allocated ‘migrant distress fund’, the Ministry is clearly overwhelmed and as such relies heavily on the capabilities of institutes like the IOM.

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 Kimani, Counter Trafficking Programme Officer, for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

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. “Some of the things I experienced... were beyond human imagination, you can only wish they were scenes in a horror movie,” Lucy 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.

Sofia Rajad, Project Manager for CRADLE, notes that there is concerted effort to ensure that victims go through the entire legal process, which can often be a very lengthy process. Yet 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. It is a struggle balancing the two. Rajad 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 Rajad. The need to develop such amenities has become much more a necessity than previously.

Tangible Action

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in 2012, there were only 4,746 trafficking convictions worldwide. A troubling disclosure considering that of the estimated 21 million individuals currently being trafficked, 5.5 million of them are children.

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 indispensable players including the IOM, CRADLE, the Ministry of Youth, the Law Society of Kenya and other stakeholders identified strategic priorities and agendas that each body ought to initiate. Rajad notes that there is the political will to further the cause.

Through the efforts of MP Millie Odhiambo, the Kenyan government signed into law the Counter Trafficking in Persons Act 2010 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 not only legally defines and recognises trafficking as a crime, but it also defines the role of each stakeholder, which means unlike previously, bodies can be held legally accountable for not following through on counter trafficking measures.

However, since the legislation of the law, in comparison to the weighty number of identified children being trafficked, the government has brought very few trafficking offenders to justice for their crimes because of the high threshold of evidence required to obtain a conviction. Of more than 200 child trafficking cases brought to CRADLE since 2009, only 43 have gone to court, and there have been few convictions. The accountability and prosecution for those who perpetrate human and child trafficking in Kenya is still wanting.

IOM has assisted the Kenya Association of Private Employment Agencies (KAPEA) in developing a recruitment code of conduct to prevent trafficking. Potential migrants are also encouraged to only use KAPEA or Ministry of Labour accredited agencies. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), in June 2011, issued a mandate that required foreign companies or employment agencies to submit information regarding the jobs they were offering aboard to Kenyans such as: information on the prospective employers, the terms of service, and remuneration, and also recruitment agencies that were recruiting for domestic workers for jobs in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, were put under parliament scrutiny.

In 2013, the Kenyan government identified 47 trafficking victims, prosecuted 30 trafficking cases and convicted seven traffickers, according to a U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons report. However on the down side, in the same year, the Kenyan government lifted a ban it had imposed in June 2012 on Kenyans departing to the Middle East as domestic workers after the Ministry of Labour reported that it had inspected 389 out of an estimated total of 500 labour recruitment agencies. So for now, many Kenyans continue to voluntarily migrate to the Middle East, in search of employment, still putting themselves at risk of domestic servitude, forced manual labour and even sexual slavery.

One Step, A Thousand to Go

In mid 2014, the Kenyan government passed the Victim Protection bill which aims to improve support to victims of crime, including provision of a place of safety, food, medical treatment, psychosocial care and police protection. It also establishes a fund to assist victims. Another move in the right direction. 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 2:30p.m. 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 and 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 the world’s fastest growing criminal venture making a reported USD $32 billion a year.

It affects every country on the planet, where helpless people and children find themselves traded for domestic servitude and sexual exploitation. 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.

Celebrity Factor

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, which stands for Demi and Ashton, 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 McIntyre 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.

McIntyre’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. According to Alice Kimani, the Counter Trafficking Programme Officer for the IOM, human trafficking remains, by sheer nature, a clandestine activity of highly organised crime syndicates. Its victims are well-hidden and difficult to trace, whilst its perpetrators are masters at functioning underground.

Be Vigilant

Having worked in the human rights field for numerous years Rajad 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.

Just like Eunia’s benefactor, the general public can play a crucial role in curbing human trafficking. According to Kimani, by being alert and aware of what is happening around us, we can spot unusual occurrences. Ask yourself does this scenario seem genuine? In the case of children, Kimani 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 Kimani 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.

The one thing that is certain, however, is that human trafficking does not end itself. Nor is it adequate to presuppose that 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.

Trafficking cuts across gender and ethnicity and the fact that there are more slaves around the world today than ever before in history, should be a fact that shames us all.