Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
An NGO worker with two children suspected of being trafficked into South Africa from Zimbabwe
Southern Africa has many of the conditions traffickers capitalize on: endemic poverty and unemployment that create a demand for better opportunities, and high rates of regular and irregular migration that mask the movements of traffickers and their victims.
The region has no shortage of protocols, frameworks and action plans for dealing with human trafficking, but the net result of all these agreements has been no more than a handful of prosecutions.
"African countries are more than happy to sign documents and attend conferences, but step out of the room and they're happy to have lunch and forget about it," said Ottilia Maunganidze, a researcher on the International Crime in Africa Programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
Maunganidze was addressing a roomful of experts and government officials mainly from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) who gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, recently to look at ways of turning commitments to counter human trafficking into action.
The key international framework for combating this crime is the 2000 UN protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, also known as the Palermo Protocol. Its lengthy definition of human trafficking includes “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception…for the purpose of exploitation.” Twelve of the SADC's 15 member states have ratified the protocol, which committed them to enact legislation to make human trafficking a criminal offence.
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"If trafficking is not a crime in your country, everything else is symptomatic," warned Johan Kruger of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Maunganidze pointed out that merely passing legislation is not enough. Mozambique has passed legislation, but has never prosecuted a case. "Criminalisation has to happen in practice," she told the meeting.
This means developing national action plans that involve social workers, medical professionals, public prosecutors and the police; establishing a central anti-trafficking unit; allocating resources to assisting victims; and signing bilateral and multilateral agreements with the countries victims originate from and pass through.
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Most trafficking in southern Africa is for the purpose of sexual exploitation, but trafficking for forced labour is growing and is even more hidden, according to Bernardo Mariano-Joaquim, regional representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Criminal syndicates are usually engaged in these activities, and many people still lack a clear understanding of what trafficking is, adding to the difficulty of detection and prosecution. "Organized crime can't be prosecuted in the same fashion as other crimes," said Kruger. "You have to connect the dots, you need proactive intelligence and international cooperation."
"In Africa, we're making some progress in creating an environment to assist victims, but where we need more work is prosecutions," Mariano-Joaquim told IRIN. "Prosecution is lagging behind the identification of victims, and even prevention."