In Southern Africa, men, women and children are exploited in brick-making, domestic service, agriculture, artisanal mining and fishing. Reports of forced and exploitative labour have increased as the mining, manufacturing and agricultural sectors expand in countries such as Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Botswana.
However the definition and analysis of a problem depends very much on perspective, and the question is: Does internationally accepted terminology around human trafficking adequately capture the reality that fits the African context? Often what the international community labels as human trafficking are in fact locally acceptable labour practices that offer the only meaningful employment available.
Children can be viewed as potential economic earners, either through their labour, particularly as domestic servants for girls, or through early marriage of daughters, which has the dual advantage of providing a dowry and protecting familial reputation. While those practices shouldn’t be condoned, anti-trafficking programmes rarely offer long-term sustainable alternatives for equal prospects for economic or social advancement, nor options to abate it or stamp out its drivers.
Moreover, despite the fact that human trafficking is a borderless crime, and that the UNODC estimates that 90% of sub-Saharan Africa trafficking flows are short distance, in the African context there is a strong propensity to link human trafficking and irregular migration.
With the rising rates of migration towards Europe, new life has been breathed into regional initiatives on managing irregular migration, such as the Khartoum Process in East Africa and the Rabat Process in West Africa. And it is increasingly here where anti-human trafficking initiatives are couched, alongside efforts to counter the smuggling of migrants.
This makes the situation for African governments even more complex.
Yes, migrants and refugees are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and the smuggling of migrants often leads to situations of forced labour. But migration and the contexts in which it occurs are vastly different to those envisaged by the authors of UNTOC. The terminology used in the convention and its protocols, and the neat distinctions provided between human trafficking and smuggling, are increasingly incapable of capturing the complexity of human movement in 2017.
Individuals with divergent histories, experiences and reasons for movement are travelling together along the same routes. While there are some who do not consent to the travel (or at least aren’t fully informed of the purpose of the travel), most move fully aware that they will face bribes, threats, violence and abuse along the way. Still others enter ‘transport for work’ agreements with their smugglers. Often this results in protracted periods of forced and bonded labour.
For many Africans, migration to the Gulf, Europe or North America – no matter how this is achieved – is an exceedingly positive economic and development proposition for themselves, their families, and through remittances paid later, their communities and their nations. African economies benefit from more than $35 billion annually in remittances. The risks and abuses of the journey are seen as the price to be paid for generational return.
When viewed from the perspective of African states and their people, more often than not what the West deems as human trafficking is simply a quest for new opportunities and a better life. And vocal international campaigns are perceived as an effort to restrict those opportunities.
So it is no wonder that some African governments do little more than pay lip service to a discourse that is largely shaped outside of Africa.
Written for the ENACT project by Tuesday Reitano, Deputy Director, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime