Human trafficking in Africa: the Multi-Billion Dollar Business Venture

SUBSCRIBE on Youtube:

“Maybe slavery has been with us for centuries because of the inclination to maintain economic systems geared more toward commodifying human existence than developing its spiritual, creative, or scientific potentials. Such commodification instantly erases any recognition of humanity as a priceless value unto itself and reduces individuals as well as entire races, or a specific gender, to a bargain-priced ‘other.”

― Aberjhani, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah

The United Nations Trafficking Protocol 2003 defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, through threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability or of giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for exploitation purposes.

Exploitation can be in the form of sexual, forced labour, forced marriages, armed conflicts and removal of organs. While some countries such as Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, among others, associate exploitation mainly with prostitution or sexual exploitation. Other forms of exploitation include forced marriages, harmful sports, forced labour.

There are two different types of trafficking in person, mainly internal and external trafficking.   Internal human trafficking occurs within a country’s territory. It involves the recruitment and transportation of persons from rural to urban areas to work as prostitutes, in factories, plantations, mines and construction sites. Others also work as drug peddlers, pick-pocketers, waiters, beggars in the streets, you name them.  On the other hand, external trafficking involves recruiting people and moving them from one country to the other for exploitations. The forms of exploitation outside the victims’ countries are similar to the internal ones but can be more severe and traumatic.

Human trafficking, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry, is predominant in Africa. The continent is the main source of victims who are transported to the rest of the world like Western and Southern Europe, the Middle East and some Asian countries.  In most cases, those exploited by traffickers are a vulnerable group of people, mostly women, children, poor and migrants. The 2018 Global Slavery Index estimated that 9.24 million Africans were enslaved in the region, accounting for 23 per cent of the total global enslaved people. Sadly, and ironically indeed, the majority of the perpetrators are not unfamiliar to the victims; they can be close family members and friends.  In terms of gender, evidence shows that nearly half of men and women are traffickers.  The organized criminal groups are also involved in making the illegal enterprise perilous and complicated, making it incredibly gruelling for the law enforcement agents to combat the illicit trade.

Trafficking in persons in Africa is spurred by factors categorized into two, namely “push” and “pull” factors. Push factors are issues and situation that compel individuals into accepting behests that make them vulnerable to trafficking, whereas push factors are those things that influence one into accepting dehumanizing deals. Examples of push factors are political instability, unemployment, poverty and rampant corruption. The pull factors include high demand for cheap and low-skilled labour, human body parts and organs, weak border control, economic inequalities, cultural and religious practices and prosecution, ethnic and gender discrimination. For instance, constant wars in different regions and countries have driven many communities to refugee camps, making them easy preys for traffickers. In such a volatile situation, children are likely to be traded and enlisted in the military as child soldiers. Regardless, the reality behind human trafficking is obvious, as Asa Don Brown puts it “there is one absolute commonality amongst the victims of human trafficking; the loss of personal freedom.”

Human trafficking has been in existence for long. The rise in the inhuman venture in Africa began after the Cold War due to capacity gaps in the management of Sub-regional economic cooperation and regional integration initiatives. As a result, regional conflicts erupted, leading to a rise in the number of economic and political refugees. Currently, evidence shows that Libya is at the forefront of human trafficking in Africa. Researchers have discovered that complicated trafficking networks extend from Sub-Saharan countries to Libya. Traffickers pick migrants, who are desperate to escape their precarious situation at home, and promise them good job opportunity and a better life in Europe and other parts of the world. Often, these desperate victims end up into forced labour market and prostitution. To complicate matters, traffickers shrewdly take advantage of the migrants’ illegal status and language barrier to achieve their nefarious activities. Apart from Libya, other North African countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia act as an entry point, transit and destination countries for the prohibited enterprise. Algeria is more of a transit and destination state compared to the rest.

The human trafficking practice is not limited to North Africa; the illicit trade is also rampant in West Africa with Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal being the main source, transit and destination countries for victims, who are mostly women and children. Young people  from rural areas in Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin and Ghana are trafficked to work in cocoa plantations in Ghana. The UN migration agency had also disclosed that thousands of Nigerian women leave the country annually with the promise of lucrative job offers in Italy, only to be exploited in European countries. Various research findings show that a high percentage of Nigeria women who travel to Italy are forced into sexual exploitation.

Nor is Southern African countries such as Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi and others exempted from the lucrative illegal trade. The illegal trade is widespread in South Africa due to its enabling environment and demand for the trafficked persons. Women and children who move from rural regions to cities such as Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Cape Town and Durban are most likely to be exploited.  A whopping percentage of boys are coerced to work as waiters, road constructors, street urchins, beggars on the roads and labourers in mines and plantations; whereas girls serve as domestic workers for rich people. In Mozambique, children, women and men are recruited and transported to Durban to work and engage in prostitution.  Elsewhere, mostly South Africans, white Afrikaans transport street children, orphans and victims of physical and sexual abuse from Lesotho to Eastern Europe to provide labour on farms.

The ugly situation is hardly different in East Africa. The region is not left behind; most trafficking in this part of Africa takes place in and through Kenya in the name of  employment agencies. The local authorities have established a complicated criminal chain that has three links. The first link comprises a regional recruitment team which transport people from Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania to Kenya. The second link consists of the Kenyan-based brokers who receive people from their respective countries; the third links are intermediaries based in the host country and act as foreign employment agencies. Their work is to secure people from Kenya. This business practice was investigated by ENACT, a European-based consultancy with expertise in sustainable business strategies and responsible leadership.


War on human trafficking cannot be fought and won individually. it requires collective action. Countries must work together to do away with human trafficking from their lands. The first step towards combating human trafficking is to provide long-term solutions to economic, social and political challenges bedevilling each state. This solution involves creating social, economic and political balance, such as creating employment opportunities, enhancing peaceful co-existence and getting rid of gender/ethnic discrimination. Adherence to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 that advocates for rights to food, healthcare and basic shelter, is another solution to human trafficking. Moreover, wealthy nations should come to the aid of poorer countries to help them address economic challenges.

The next step is to enact laws on human trafficking, which provide a detailed definition in line with the trafficking protocol. Besides, frontline officers should be well-trained to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators. Proper training is only possible with enough resources. Human trafficking offenders must receive harsh punishments to serve as efficient deterrence. Protection of the victims is another way to deal with trafficking. To protect victims of human trafficking in Africa, each state should have a statutory provision on protection. Few nations like Ghana, Botswana and Mozambique have enacted the law, but much has not been achieved. The statutory provision should protect victims’ privacy, their physical and mental well-being. Furthermore, it should offer accommodation, medical and psychological assistance as well as monetary compensation to the victims.

 Rising in the number of cases of human trafficking in Africa is also a major concern for the international human rights groups. The groups want governments to implement measures such as the creation of awareness of the problem, comprehensive research, reduction in demand for human body parts and organs and abolition of discriminatory practices. To be specific, the United Nations Global Plan of Action to combat human trafficking was adopted in 2010. The objective is to integrate the fight against human trafficking into the United Nations’ broader programmes; if well-implemented, the integration will heighten development and reinforce security in the entire globe. The United Nations voluntary trust fund for victims of trafficking, mainly, women and children, has also been established.

The roles of global women organizations in eradicating human trafficking business cannot be understated. These organizations have established informal networks to save victims, shield them from retaliation or apprehension and plan for their transportation and counselling in their native lands. Civil societies, Non-Governmental Organizations and religious leaders are also doing the recommendable task of enlightening families and offering counselling services to victims.

Despite an increased effort to fight human trafficking by human rights groups and international bodies, the prohibited enterprise is still booming in Africa. Reports show that traffickers generate $31.1 billion annually from the industry; an indication that it is a money-spinning activity. Failure to combat the menace is attributed to ineffective policies, lack of political will, rampant corruption and recurrent socio-economic problems. According to experts, no African state has met the minimum requirements for fighting human trafficking as required by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).  Out of 55 countries, 23 falls under Tier 2, meaning they do not entirely meet the TVPA but are making some efforts to comply with the set standards.  19 others are under Tier 2 watch list, which means they are making significant progress, but the activity keeps on increasing and 9 falls under Tier 3 meaning no measures have been put in place to tackle the problem.

The lack of proper training and unqualified law enforcement agents are other obstacles facing the war against human trafficking in Africa. In some cases, these undertrained law enforcers do not understand the definition and scope of their job. This obstacle makes the execution of their job difficult.  All these challenges, combined with minimum cooperation amongst affected countries, explain why it is difficult to dismantle the elaborate trafficking chains, making it possible for the illicit trade to continue booming.