SA hotbed of human trafficking

Across Southern Africa today men, women and children are being deceived. Struggling to survive in situations of destitution, they are promised jobs that seem to offer life-lines, but merely mark the beginning of their exploitation. These people are victims of one of the most chilling aspects of contemporary migration — human trafficking.

For 15-year-old Faith, the impact was devastating. Struggling to make ends meet in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, she was approached by a man offering waitressing at a Johannesburg restaurant. But the promise was false. There was no restaurant job. Once in Johannesburg, Faith was beaten, abused, locked in a Hillbrow flat and forced into prostitution to earn profits for her traffickers.

Globally, human trafficking is considered the third-largest source of profits for organised crime with only small-weapons trafficking and drug smuggling more lucrative. It is estimated that up to one million people are trafficked across borders annually, with many more trafficked internally in their own countries.

Human trafficking is the process of recruitment and transportation of people by means of deception or force for the purpose of exploitation. This exploitation most commonly involves forced prostitution, but victims are also trafficked for bonded labour and domestic servitude. Victims can be men, women or children.

Having conducted research on trafficking issues in the region since 2003, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Southern African Counter-Trafficking Assistance Programme has found human trafficking is thriving in Southern Africa, with South Africa and its expanding sex industry the main regional destination. Research also reveals that victims are trafficked from SADC states into South Africa, as well as from South East Asia and Eastern Europe. IOM has also helped victims trafficked to South Africa and assisted South Africans who have been trafficked abroad, for example into forced domestic labour in Ireland and the Middle-East.

Globally government action on trafficking is centred on the United Nation’s protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, and the majority of governments in the region have ratified this instrument. This has committed governments to criminalising human trafficking and developing legislation against it.

However, translating a willingness to stamp out trafficking into effective legislation is not an easy task. To assist with this, IOM brought government officials from 13 Southern African countries, as well as Comoros and Seychelles, together in Gaborone, Botswana, as a part of its Migration Dialogue for Southern Africa process this week. The aim is to galvanise the counter-trafficking efforts of governments and to provide them with a forum in which to share ideas and experiences on the development of effective anti-trafficking legislation.

It is crucial that trafficking is criminalised across the Southern Africa region to ensure that traffickers are properly prosecuted and victims adequately protected. There are existing legal measures that can be used to prosecute traffickers, but are not sufficient to adequately punish or deter traffickers or protect victims effectively. Currently traffickers can be charged for criminal acts that happen as a part of the trafficking process, but not for trafficking itself.

Crimes such as kidnapping, abduction, rape and bringing people into the country without proper documentation, often occur as a part of the trafficking process and traffickers can be tried for these offences. However this is a blunt instrument. These acts do not necessarily have to occur for trafficking to take place. For example, trafficked Thai women arriving at OR Tambo International Airport often have all the correct documentation needed for entry to South Africa and are more commonly lured by false promises than taken by force. Defining trafficking in law as recruiting and transporting people by means of deception or force for the purpose of exploiting them, means that these women’s traffickers will not escape prosecution.

Comprehensive trafficking legislation would also secure victims of trafficking more protection. Ironically under today’s legal framework it is the trafficked victims who are being treated like criminals. A victim of trafficking can be arrested and prosecuted for offences committed as a direct result of him/her being trafficked.

A victim who has entered the country without documentation can be charged under the Immigration Act and a woman who has been forced into prostitution by her trafficker can presently be prosecuted for prostitution. A law that recognises trafficked persons as victims of a severe human rights abuse would change that. It would also prevent the summary deportation of trafficked victims back to the circumstances that made them vulnerable to trafficking in the first place. Under a comprehensive trafficking law, safeguards would need to be introduced to protect and rehabilitate the victim both in her destination and home country.

Human trafficking thrives, in part, because it offers human traffickers high profits with relatively low risks. Anti-trafficking legislation will help change this opportunity structure as it will add to the arsenal that law enforcement in the region can use to prosecute traffickers. It is crucial that countries in the region coordinate as they develop trafficking legislation. Trafficking by its very nature often involves the transport of victims across borders, so sharing experience and ideas across the region will ensure that all countries have harmonised legislation and are equally able to prevent human trafficking, assist the victims and prosecute human traffickers

Readers can call IOM’s Human Trafficking Helpline — 0800 555 999 — for information and assistance on combating trafficking.

Rebecca Wynn works for IOM’s Southern African Counter-Trafficking Assistance Programme

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