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10 Haunting Truths About Human Trafficking in Africa

Every year, thousands of people around the world are robbed of their basic human rights and stripped of their freedom and dignity. And as one of the most lucrative and low-risk industries in the world, human trafficking shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Break The Chains
"Break The Chains" by Gigi Ibrahim licensed under CC BY 2.0.

World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

July 30 marked World Day Against Trafficking in Persons; a day to educate the public and raise awareness about the horror of human trafficking in an effort to end the practise.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as:

“the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

This exploitation can take various forms from forced marriage and sexual slavery to forced labour and organ harvesting.

Although anyone can be victimized regardless of age or gender, women and girls are the primary targets – particularly for sex trafficking, which is the most common.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), women and girls make up over 70% of trafficking victims. When broken down, approximately 46% of trafficking victims are women, 34% are children, and 20% are men.

The two main forms of human trafficking are for sexual exploitation (about 50%) followed by forced labour (about 40%). And while women and girls are primarily targeted for sexual exploitation (over 70%), men and boys are primarily targeted for forced labour (over 60%).

Human trafficking in Africa

In Africa in particular, there are some unique aspects to this rapidly growing global atrocity. We'll explore ten human trafficking trends on the continent.

1. According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, there are approximately 40 million people around the world trapped in modern day slavery. In Africa, the number is about 9.2 million people – which means our continent has about 23% of the world’s human trafficking victims, the highest concentration of any region in the world.

Human traffickers thrive on economic, social, and political crises so it’s easy to find people to exploit when hundreds of millions in Africa live below the poverty line, approximately 15 out of the 54 countries on the continent are conflict zones displacing millions, and several countries on the continent don’t have robust regulations for investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of such crimes.

2. The two most common forms of enslavement in Africa are forced labour and forced marriage. Globally, there are an estimated 25 million trapped in forced labour and about 15 million in forced marriages. According to the Walk Free organization, over 90% of early marriages around the world are girls married off against their will (often to much older men) and up to 44% of these girls were forced to marry before the age of 15.

The situation is even more bleak on the African continent, which has some of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. An estimated 38% of girls in Sub-Saharan African are married off before the age of 18, and about 12% before the age of 15. In Niger, up to 76% of girls are married before the age of 18, and about 28% before the age of 15.

3. About 8% of the world’s child sex trafficking occurs in Africa, particularly West Africa. According to UNODC’s 2020 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, children (both boys and girls) make up about 60% of all trafficked victims in Sub-Saharan Africa. The bulk of these children are forced into physical labour, often to help alleviate poverty, and are then exploited by traffickers masking their true intentions.

4. There’s a common misconception that victims of human trafficking have to be transported from one country to another or that most trafficking victims in Africa are migrants being exploited on their way to Europe. While migrants and forcibly displaced people are indeed highly vulnerable to exploitation, the reality is that the vast majority of trafficking victims in Africa do not leave the continent; they are trafficked in their own countries, often by local nationals.

5. According to the Global Slavery Index, some of the countries with the highest rates of human trafficking in Africa are Libya, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Burundi, Central African Republic, Mauritania, and South Sudan.

6. Mauritania, a county in Northwest Africa that borders Mali and Senegal, was apparently one of the last countries in the world to officially abolish modern slavery. It officially abolished the practise in 1981, but enforcement of the law has been a challenge, leaving thousands still enslaved.

7. While the vast majority of African migrants do not leave the continent and only move regionally, there has been an increase in the number of Africans moving to Europe and the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, at least a million people from Sub-Saharan Africa have migrated to Europe since 2010. Migrants from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and Somalia make up over 50% of Africans living in Europe and the U.S. Some of these migrants are forced to take dangerous routes that expose them to exploitation.

8. Africa accounts for about 40% of the world’s child soldiers. Armed conflict provides opportunity for children to be trafficked and forced into fighting. With approximately 15 out of the 54 countries on the continent facing armed conflict, children are vulnerable targets as they are easily influenced. The Central African Republic has some of the highest numbers of child soldiers on the continent.

9. The African continent has some of the most lax and uncoordinated laws for fighting human trafficking. Some countries have made considerable efforts. For instance, Nigeria was one of the first African countries to create an anti-trafficking agency and an app that allows users to alert local authorities about suspected trafficking cases. The app has resulted in the conviction of hundreds of traffickers since its 2003 launch.

Kenya implemented anti-trafficking legislation in 2010 with a five-year prison term and hefty fines to help deter criminal groups. In Angola, teachers and officials in the defense, security, and judicial sectors receive training on human rights and how to identify and protect victims.

But there’s still plenty more work to be done on the continent when it comes to catching and prosecuting predators. It’s also believed that police officers tend to view trafficking through the limited lens of sexual exploitation and need a better understanding of how trafficking manifests in other ways on the continent such as through early marriage and forced labour.

10. Human trafficking is a 13-billion-dollar industry in Africa, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. While the continent has more people trapped in forced labour, the majority of this billion-dollar revenue is generated from sexual exploitation.

Pandemics and online predators

The covid-19 pandemic has further complicated and heightened the risk of exploitation. Human traffickers now have more opportunities to target vulnerable people with so many around the world facing financial distress and economic uncertainty. People are more likely to resort to extreme measures when in distress or make less diligent decisions that land them in exploitative situations. Around the world, domestic violence and sexual assaults have also increased as a result of lockdowns.

In addition, people (including children) are spending more time online in general, and even more so as a result of the pandemic. Traffickers have moved online, where they have easy access to unassuming targets, and use a variety of methods including social media, catfishing, and fake job advertisements to lure new victims. And with lockdowns and border closures, victims have significantly lower chances of escaping. There has also been a reported 200% increase in child abuse forums online and a rise in child marriages as families sacrifice their daughters for dowry payments to survive the pandemic.

This trend of families marrying off their young daughters to older men in order to stay afloat has been seen in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and several other countries. According to Plan International, pregnancy complications are the number one killer of girls aged 15-19 years worldwide. It is estimated that a six-month lockdown alone could result in 7 million unintended pregnancies, placing countless young lives at risk.

Human trafficking is complex in the way that it operates and manifests, and lack of adequate awareness around the issue will only continue to enable and embolden predators. There is no particular profile of who a trafficker is, especially considering the myriad ways in which people can be exploited, but a trafficker could be anyone from a “loved” one to an organized group.

And unfortunately, as long as there continues to be a high global demand for the trade in human beings, human trafficking will continue to flourish.


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