Human trafficking is one of the most serious human rights abuses in the world, yet also one of the most underreported. That’s why Ugandan rights activists are trying to break the silence and draw more attention to this crime.
The past couple of years in particular have seen some high profile cases of the trafficking of Ugandan women to the Middle East. Just over a year ago, a 33-year-old Ugandan woman named Flora Ritah Zawedde Nanteza, who had been working as a housekeeper in Dubai, died of a heart attack in a prison hospital. She was not a criminal, but the victim of a system called Kafala in which migrant workers are subject to draconian restrictions that essentially render them indentured servants of their employers – often referred to as “sponsors.”
Yaskin Kakande explains that when Flora couldn’t bear to live in her sponsor’s home in Dubai anymore, “she decided to go out on her own and look for a job elsewhere. The sponsor lodged a complaint and she was registered as a runway, thus becoming wanted by authorities.” Kakande describes several other cases of African labor migrants being abused and even killed by their employers, who are usually acquitted of any crime.
Later that year, another body was returned to Uganda, with Dubai authorities stating that this housekeeper had also died of a heart attack. On a Ugandan radio program, Kakande discussed the conflicting reports of the Dubai and Uganda authorities with a labor recruiting agent. The Ugandan hospital found signs of torture and abuse, but no evidence of the heart attack that the Dubai medical report claimed killed her. Kakande writes, “The recruiting agent accused me of trying to pull down the ladder of mobility that had granted me prosperity, as I cautioned Ugandans about seeking jobs in Dubai. I responded, explaining the trafficking in Dubai was no different than slavery, and the work of recruiting agents was no different than the middlemen of slavery in past history.”
Mayambala Wafrika, Chairperson of the Justice for African Workers campaign, also likened the employment agencies’ activities to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He told me by email that one girl currently being held in a house in Saudi Arabia against her will “approached our group for assistance… The agents from Uganda who transported her sold her to a Saudi company called [the] Besher Recruiting Agency. Besher confiscated her travel documents including her passport, and forced her to work without any formal contract. She first worked in 4 houses without pay but kept on running away due to inhumane conditions. A Saudi family later bought her from the agency at a cost of 16,000 Saudi riyals (around $4,200)… they essentially become property of the agency they are sold to.”
Press conference on trafficking at the Ugandan Parliament, August 2016. Left to right: Bruhan Byaruhanga, Councillor of Kampala City Council Authority; Mayambala Wafrika, Chairperson, Justice for African Workers campaign; Hon. Herbert Kabafunzaki, Minister of Labour; and Ronald Nsubuga, Partner, R. Nsubuga & Co. Advocates. Photo: Doreen Assimwe.
For its part, Uganda, which ranked as a tier 2 country in the US State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons report, banned its citizens from seeking employment in Saudi Arabia six months after having signed a memorandum of understanding allowing Ugandans to migrate there for work. Uganda has also established a National Counter-Human Trafficking Taskforce, which works with an anti-trafficking civil society coalition and, according to Linda Kabuzire, “has conducted training programs, created public awareness materials, held pre-departure information briefings for intending migrants, drafted guidelines on victim care for investigators, and is designing a national database in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration for sex and labor trafficking statistics.”
These are positive steps, but the challenges are immense and the trafficking of African labor migrants to the Middle East is just one aspect of a much bigger picture. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking victims from at least 153 countries were detected in 124 countries between 2010 and 2012. The United Nations’ conservative estimate is that about 2.5 million people in 2015 were trapped in some kind of forced labor or indentured servitude. It is a diverse crime, encompassing everything from child prostitution — in the United States as well as central Africa — to laborers on agricultural plantations. These abuses are all part of the same global phenomena that objectify women, children, and poor people and take advantage of their low or second-class status; particularly when they are migrants.
The employment agencies that recruit Ugandan women are well known by name, but thus far no actions have been taken against them: “The international community is strangely silent,” Wafrika remarked. In order to combat these crimes, he says, the international community should take decisive action not just through the United Nations but also through institutions such as Interpol and the International Criminal Court — potentially invoking long-established legal frameworks such as universal jurisdiction and jus cogens.
One thing is certain — and that is that while many individual states have implemented strong anti-trafficking policies and programs, governments around the world will have to amp up their efforts to work together in order to make significant improvements.