/ 30 July 2022

Social media is making it easier for human traffickers to ensnare victims

Protest Against Human Trafficking In South Africa
People with black tape on their mouth walk along the Sea Point coast as they attend a protest against human trafficking in Cape Town. (Photo by Ashraf Hendricks/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Key to any human trafficking operation is the recruiter, who often occupies a position of authority in the community. They might be the leader of a trafficking ring but they are often just someone credible, even with significant religious or political standing.

Consider the documented case of a teacher from Lesotho who persuaded students to look for women who were likely to accept employment “abroad”.

Five young women were duly introduced to the teacher who deceitfully briefed them on the work and where it was —  an offer they readily accepted. However, upon getting to their destination, in South Africa, they were sold into sexual exploitation.

In another case, the organiser, a Congolese woman, promised the relatives of five children that they would get a better education in Zambia. When the deal was finalised, the woman arranged for them to enter Zambia irregularly. On arrival, she put the five children to work in her business, selling commodities and food.

The Southern Africa region is not free from human trafficking, a crime that entails the recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. Traffickers of human beings treat their victims as commodities that can be used and sold for financial gain, without regard for their dignity and rights. 

Essentially, traffickers can be divided into two broad categories: organised criminal groups and opportunistic traffickers operating alone or in cooperation with others. In the latter category are business owners, intimate partners and family members. 

Whatever the organisational structure, traffickers usually target the most marginalised and vulnerable, such as those with mental disorders, undocumented migrants, those living in poverty, the unemployed as well as abandoned children and those in dysfunctional families. In the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region cases have been reported of people living with albinism being trafficked for their organs. 

Trafficking can involve travelling to another country. However, most victims across the world are citizens of the countries where they are detected — but are usually subject to significant geographical movement, often to unfamiliar parts of their region where a different language is spoken.

While the scenario of an influential community member doubling as a recruiter is still a reality, the internet has revolutionised human trafficking. It has presented recruiters with more convenient ways to connect with targeted victims, usually with fake job offers, and to find buyers for their products, such as human kidneys, and even to livestream acts of exploitation. 

Through the internet it is also possible to anonymously arrange logistics, such as transport and accommodation for victims, in addition to moving and hiding the proceeds of crime. 

In the recruitment phase for human trafficking, two types of strategies can be identified. “Hunting” is when traffickers proactively target specific victims or clients in order to gain access to victims and establish connections with potential buyers or exploitative services. “Fishing” involves traffickers posting adverts online and waiting for potential victims or clients to respond. They might include fake job adverts or offers to buyers for certain services.

Thus, it is critical that guardians and educators teach children how to navigate the internet safely. Social media is a significant danger, not least because it is now such an indispensable part of life, with WhatsApp and Facebook among the most popular platforms.  

It is concerning that a third of the children who participated in a 2020 survey, conducted by the Youth Research Unit at the Bureau of Market Research, Unisa and Unicef, had met someone face to face during the previous year who they had first got to know on the internet. The last time they met the person face to face, they experienced feelings of happiness (58,8%) and excitement (43,7%).

Globally, 50% of detected human victims of human trafficking were for sexual exploitation and 38% for forced labour, while 6% were subjected to forced criminal activity and more than 1% to begging. Smaller numbers were trafficked for forced marriages, organ removals and other purposes.

This is in contrast to the situation in the SADC region where the majority of victims of human trafficking are exploited for the purpose of forced labour. They are put to work, doing jobs such as selling goods in markets, begging and labouring on farms and in quarries and mines. 

Victims of human trafficking are invariably kept against their will through fear of physical violence. In other instances, victims are prevented from fleeing because they have been forcibly introduced to drugs or have been deceived into believing that they owe the traffickers huge amounts of money for services provided, such as the provision of a false ID, transport or accommodation.

Research by  the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that, globally, the number of children trafficking victims has tripled, while the number of boys has increased five times over the past 15 years. However, women and girls are still the primary targets of traffickers, making up 46% and 19% of all victims, respectively. 

“Loverboy” cases have also been reported in the SADC region. This is where male traffickers romance potential female victims for months, and even years, building a relationship of trust, before trafficking them into sexual exploitation or forced labour. 

In SADC member states, the number of trafficking cases recorded fell between 2017 and 2020, probably due to increased focus on the crime. More countries have developed specific laws prohibiting such crimes after ratifying the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the Trafficking Protocol).

As of August 2020, 169 countries had enacted legislation that criminalises trafficking in persons, in line with the protocol. Across the world the average conviction rate has tripled since 2003 when the protocol came into force, although convictions have been lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Between 2017 and 2020, 484 cases of trafficking were recorded in the SADC Regional Trafficking in Persons Database, set up in 2014 by member states, the SADC Secretariat and UNODC.

There were 212 cases from nine SADC member states in 2017 – 130 of them were registered in South Africa alone. In 2018, 151 cases were registered in 11 SADC countries, with the number falling to 55 cases from eight member states. The number of recorded cases rose again to 66 cases from eight member states in 2020.

Detection is particularly difficult, and even where suspects have been identified, building a case for prosecution is fraught with technicalities. It doesn’t help that human trafficking is often conflated with people smuggling and irregular migration, leading to further complications. 

Working with other UN agencies and development partners, UNODC is supporting member states with training to boost detection and prosecution, along with assistance for victims. Just as important is awareness-raising and ongoing data collection to support evidence-based programming.

In the words of one stakeholder, the human trafficking cases they encountered happened by coincidence and not because of targeted efforts. Hence, the aim of support endeavors is to ensure that detection and prosecution happen by design rather than by accident.

Dr Jane Ongolo is the Southern Africa regional resident representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.