This we Learned from a Trafficker of Persons from East Africa to the Middle East

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by Jacques Bahati, Policy Analyst, Africa Faith and Justice Network  and edited by David P. Mahoney, CFX

A former human trafficker told Africa Faith and Justice Network on December 2, 2021, that his Middle Eastern partners had sent a video showing four men, aided by two dogs, gang-raping a young woman he had trafficked. The image continues to haunt him. He added, “I am not sure if I will ever be forgiven by God for what I did.” Where are the victims from? Besides trafficking compatriots from Uganda, he also facilitated the trafficking of Kenyans, Tanzanians, and Burundians. 

Human Trafficking: The evidence is overwhelming
Flying over the Middle East, I wondered how many young African victims of trafficking are held against their will on the lands below. My conversation with this former human trafficker who was caught in action by Ugandan authorities has convinced me even more that combatting human trafficking has to be a collective concern of all humanity and specifically a national priority of every government in Africa. With growing poverty, more Africans are likely to become vulnerable to this modern form of slavery.  

In a YouTube video entitled “Migrants being sold as slaves in Libya” Nima Elbagir witnessed the auctioning of a dozen of migrants outside Libya’s capital Tripoli. Also, the BBC Africa Eye documentary “I wanted to die”: The ‘hell’ of kafala jobs in the Middle East” shines more light on the trafficking and enslavement of Africans and Asians in the Middle East. Furthermore, some human traffickers have videoed themselves beating, sexually exploiting, or stabbing to death their victims and posted this on social media for the whole world to see. How many are too many for the world to say enough!

Awareness of Human Trafficking 
On December 3, 2021, as I lined up for security clearance at Entebbe International Airport in Kampala, Uganda, before catching my flight via Dubai to Washington, I saw an immigration officer ask a young woman to go and talk to the officer checking documents of those in our queue. With a wave of his hand, the officer asked her to join the line. The first immigration officer had just barely processed two people when the young woman came up again and said “Uncle, help me.” Aware of how human trafficking can escape detection or be facilitated by collaborating immigration agents, I became more curious. Her request was not the kind made by someone about to miss a flight. The officer ignored her because she was checking the documents of a couple just ahead of me. I do not know whether she was cleared for travel or not, but if she was, she would have traveled with one of the three airlines namely Emirates, Qatar and Uganda, the only ones at that time waiting for passengers.  I continue to wonder whether this young woman was a potential victim of human trafficking or not.  

Trafficked Persons are Enslaved 
Our informant says that trafficked victims are sexually abused and have sex with dogs.  As part of his repentance, he is ready to expose the secrets of the criminal network to which he had belonged. In addition to the violence and sexual exploitation, a maid’s typical workday may go from 4 or 5 am to midnight. He cannot forget the pictures of the overworked hands of the victims he trafficked and pictures of the horrible living conditions they sent to him. They are defenseless and left to the mercy of their masters. One “lucky” woman got pregnant by the man she worked for and was let go. When she returned to Uganda she terminated the pregnancy. 

Gay Men Are in High Demand
While women make up the majority of the victims of human trafficking, males are also victims. The former trafficker showed me the photo of the only male he ever trafficked. He trafficked him knowing that he was not gay, but his partners were looking for a gay male. When his victim informed him about what was happening, he was unable to help. Often he would lose contact with victims because phones were confiscated, or victims were resold or killed.

Corruption and bribery Pillars of Trafficking of Persons Infrastructure in East Africa
Traffickers have a well-organized system that profits from Africa’s most dangerous weaknesses: bribery and money from the Middle East.  Traffickers have collaborators from every travel-related sector: passport and medical services, airport ticketing and security services, immigration officials, and politicians. 

In its 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, the US Department of State said that in Uganda, “Corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year… In 2019, the State House Anti-Corruption Unit launched an investigation following complaints of government officials’ involvement in human trafficking; however, the government did not publish any reports or arrest officials by the end of the reporting period.”

Bribery is what saved our former human trafficker from years in jail when he was caught. He lost all he had to buy his freedom. With bribery, a passport or a National Identification Card can be issued to nationals and foreigners without delay.  Specific locations are used by traffickers to avoid any detection, including fake businesses, hotels, and bus stops.

Why and How Are People Leaving? 
The reasons East Africans leave for the Middle East include lack of economic opportunity and hope for a better future. Traffickers’ most common hook is the promise of good wages as a maid or a security guard. They target the youth, preferably good-looking, not necessarily educated, and knowing English is a plus. To meet the demand, they also recruit in remote villages. 

Uganda’s Labor Export Law makes it possible for licensed companies to recruit legally and send Ugandans to work in the Middle East. The implementation of this law has been described as a process by which the victim pays a lot of money to be trafficked. No accountability or transparency exists to ensure the safety and rights of exported laborers. More must be done. 

Warning Signs of Human Trafficking 
This former trafficker said that he and members of the network are not registered as a labor export company. Here are some of the warning signs that a potential victim must look for:

  • promises of making a lot of money, with everything paid for, including travel documents, visa, and trinkets; 
  • issuance of a passport without the migrant’s presence;
  • documents that are always retained by the recruiter;
  • videos and photos taken to be sent to the “sponsor”;
  • an invitation letter from an unknown African who claims to know the migrant, particularly when the content establishes untrue  family relationships such as, fiancé, sister, brother or spouse. In other words an invitation letter that does not mention specific employment opportunities abroad.
  • being asked to change names to resemble Arabic or Muslim names. Victims are told that Muslim names are better because the sponsors — Middle Eastern human traffickers and clients — prefer Muslims like themselves.
  • Faith leaders have to be very careful when approached to find people to send abroad for job opportunities. Acting without discernment can lead to sending people into slavery rather than helping them get ahead.  Any promise of compensation for such recommendations should be a red light. Our informant said that pastors had helped him recruit. 

On the day of travel or a few days before, signs of human trafficking include:

  • being asked to look for specific individuals at different levels of security checkpoints and document screening at the airport;
  • being given more than one set of documents to present at different levels of control at the airport;
  • being given medical certificates without prior examination, such as vaccination card for yellow fever and screening for HIV or Covid-19;
  • changes in travel plans from one airport to another and from one country to another;
  • being made to stay in a hotel for a few days upon arrival. During this time, the victim may be sexually abused by the traffickers before being sold or sent to the paying client. 

How to Fight  Trafficking 
Though emotionally burdened by the evidence of his victims’ suffering, this trafficker did not quit. He stopped only because he was caught. “Often I got audio and video messages from those I sent there, agonizing over their treatment, but the money was too much to stop. I could make $500 a week. This is a lot of money. I built a house and bought a car.” Whenever he attempted to advocate for the victims, his partners in the Middle East would simply ask him if he did not get his commission as agreed. Powerless on one hand and greedy on the other, he kept looking for more victims, despite the harsh evidence of his wrongdoing. 

The public must do all it can to hold traffickers accountable. Law enforcement officials need to be aware that using a phone number to identify traffickers can lead to wrongful arrests because traffickers often use acquired and registered phone numbers by other people who, when questioned, say they were not told what the phone line was for. Nor do traffickers necessarily use true names in their own identification documents. 

Final Thoughts
The message must be spread to prevent more people from falling into the nets of human traffickers. Because traffickers “live large,” they are not likely to stop on their own. Wider awareness we can slow down their recruitment efforts and no efforts should be spared to get them arrested.  Traffickers must no longer bribe their way out of prison.

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