Human Trafficking in Sub Saharan Africa

4th December 2015  By Taneem Saeed

Although it has been 200 years since slavery was officially abolished, there are millions of people across the world who are still subject to slave-like conditions. Trafficking is the biggest and fastest means by which people are exploited and forced in to slavery. This article aims to take a look into the crime in order to raise awareness about what human trafficking in Africa is.

It is unacceptable that men, women and children around the world are exploited and trafficked; it is even more unconscionable that it is happening right now. The causes of human trafficking are complex, intertwined with global development, regional conflict, gender inequality, social instability and lack of education and awareness. This is compounded by the sophistication of global human trafficking rings which prey on vulnerable people, deceive them with false promises and hope, and separate them from their families and support structures.

In Africa, countries act as both a “source” country for those that are trafficked and as a “destination” country where those who are victims of trafficking end up. Both internal and cross-border forms of trafficking are prevalent. This article aims to give a holistic view into the crime in order to raise awareness about what human trafficking is, the causes, what problems people face, the ways to mitigate it and the challenges faced in doing so.

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is often called “modern day slavery”. Human trafficking can be defined as the abduction and exploitation of people for the purpose of enslaving them. According to the UN definition, human trafficking means the recruitment, transferring or receipt of persons. This is done by threat or force and could involve abduction or deception for the purpose of exploitation. According to the UNDOC report Global Report on Trafficking in Persons of 2011, 49% of trafficking victims were women, 21% were girls, 18% were men, 12% were boys. The victims of trafficking can be of any age and of any gender, however women are more commonly both victims and offenders; a woman might sometimes be able to escape the terrifying situation by becoming the perpetrator.

We must work together to raise awareness and to change laws so that no more children are smuggled, no more young women are sexually exploited and no more men are enslaved and forced to work for another master.

Human trafficking occurs in all countries of the world. A country may be the country of origin, destination or transit, or a combination of all of these. Often, trafficking occurs from less developed to more developed countries. According to the 2014 Global Slavery Index Report, a ranking of slavery conditions in countries, an estimated 35.8 million people are victims of modern slavery globally. The problem of human trafficking is worst in Mauretania, Uzbekistan, Haiti, Qatar, India, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan.

There are many kinds of human trafficking. According to the mentioned UNDOC report, sexual exploitation is with its 79% the far most common form of human trafficking. The second most common is forced labour (18%). In Africa, most of the different kinds of trafficking take place. Farm labour, domestic work and sexual exploitation are common types of trafficking. Women can also be trafficked to be “wives”, and girls can be sold as child brides. Children can also be trafficked for use in ritual sacrifice or as child soldiers.

Causes of Human Trafficking in Sub Saharan Africa

Trafficking is one of the largest profit makers for organized crime in the world, and this rings true also in Africa. There are many causes for the trafficking, but the cause above all is poverty, which is connected to both supply and demand.

In the report An Overview of Human Trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa, the “demand factors” are referred to as “pull factors”. Economic differentials make poor countries, regions and cities attractive to traffickers. Because of conflicts, there is a demand for soldiers and sexual and domestic services. Other types of trafficking are connected to trade with organs and body parts for rituals. Adoption trade is also a factor. The “supply factors” – the “push factors” – are poverty, human deprivation, bad living conditions, unemployment, gender discrimination, harmful socio-cultural practices, low education and lack of legislative and policy frameworks.

The most common type of trafficking, when it comes to women and children, is sex trafficking. This involves bride trafficking, forced prostitution, child prostitution and child pornography. Women and children are more vulnerable to trafficking than men. One reason is gender discrimination, and the problem is also connected to poverty; it is often women that end up carrying the burden of poverty. There is also a link to disease. As the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan African countries is growing, the vulnerability of women and children to become victims of traffickers increases. For example, the person who are the family’s economic supporter might succumb to the disease, making children orphans who are more likely to be forced into labour.

Globalization makes trafficking easier. There are new ways of communication and transferring money today, which has increased global crime in general. Countries’ borders are more open than they used to be, transportation is better and there is an increase in migration. Globalization has increased both the supply and demand for human slavery.

Trafficking and Children

Trafficking of children mainly occurs because of the market for children in labour and sex trade. Sex trafficking includes bride trafficking, child prostitution and child pornography. There is a demand for underage sex and vulnerable children are becoming victims when they are trying to earn money from the so called “sex-tourists”.

Sometimes, there is also a supply of children from poor families due to a desire to support the family economically. Children are also often exploited during armed conflicts. They may be abducted and transported by rebels as well as governments. Children are perceived to be cheap and can be brain-washed into committing violent acts.

Trafficking children for sacrifice in rituals is another cause for trafficking. Uncircumcised boys are smuggled into countries to be sacrificed by fundamentalist sects; the members of these sects believe that the killings will enhance their spells. It has happened that children have been smuggled into the United Kingdom to be given to men suffering from HIV; it is believed that having sex with a virgin will cleanse them from the virus.

Measures to Reduce Extent of Human Trafficking

The World Bank and other organizations are working to reduce human trafficking around the world, and the following ways to tackle human trafficking have been identified:

  • An enhancement of social protection by a safety net system. This system is meant to target those who are vulnerable to trafficking.
  • By providing job training and creating more jobs, it is hoped that people can stay where they live and not have to leave their countries and cities to find jobs.
  • Labour safeguards are a way of tackling trafficking in fisheries, agriculture, mining, logging and construction.
  • Education and information on human trafficking, migration and child labour should be part of the school education. It is also important that efforts are made in raising awareness about human trafficking in connection to migration.
  • An improvement of the health care for vulnerable groups as well as education on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Increasing the access to justice for the poor empowers them to stand for their rights.

Some countries, such as Nigeria and South Africa have made efforts in battling human trafficking in various ways. In 2003, Nigeria was the first country in Africa to start an anti-trafficking agency, the National Agency for Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIP). The country also has the highest number of successful prosecutions of traffickers.

Through consistent strict enforcement of well-designed laws, countries can work to reduce human trafficking within and through their borders. South Africa is a country of origin, transit and destination for human trafficking, but the country has introduced ways of combating trafficking. This was done in response to its international treaty obligations. The Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act No. 7 was passed in 2013.

Challenges of Combating Human Trafficking

Even though efforts to reduce trafficking are being implemented, the problem of human slavery is difficult to tackle.

  • Trafficking is profitable. According to research from 2014, forced labour in the private economy estimates over 150 billion US $ in illegal profits per year.
  • Slavery traditions are another key factor. According to the mentioned Global Slavery Index, 106,000 people were estimated to be enslaved in South Africa in 2014. The Democratic Republic of Congo had estimated 762,900 victims of modern slavery, and Nigeria had 834,200.
  • There is a late adoption of laws to combat human trafficking in Sub-Saharan African countries. There is a weakness in the laws as well as inadequate implementation. There is ineffectiveness in combating human trafficking by the justice systems, and the numbers of convictions are low.

Extensive Efforts Required to Fight Trafficking

Trafficking is a sensitive issue which is not often discussed publicly or politically. This taboo status makes it more difficult for researchers to study it and also for local groups to openly work to prevent. Because of the global nature of this terrible trade, international organizations, development and aid groups, and national governments must work together to reduce the risks of trafficking for vulnerable people and also to make trafficking less lucrative through legislation and prosecution.

This complex crime against humanity needs to be tackled. There is a need to spread the word and raise awareness about human trafficking in the society. Education can help for both adults and children; employment can help victims; and increasing access to health can help prevent illness or even the death of victims.

We must work together to raise awareness and to change laws so that no more children are smuggled, no more young women are sexually exploited and no more men are enslaved and forced to work for another master.




Taneem Saeed
Taneems interest for human rights began when volunteering for Amnesty International in 2002, by helping out in fundraising events to demonstrations. This eventually drilled down to looking at specific cases and lobbying governments and specific MP:s, to support political prisoners unfairly imprisoned and treated in various countries. In 2006, Taneem worked for the EuroMed network for youth trafficking prevention. This with a range of professionals working in different services across the Balkans. Workshops and trainings were held with the aim to see how one can use jobs and professions to raise awareness in the hope of reducing trafficking. Nowadays, Taneem is raising awareness about human rights on his spare time. He joins events and demonstrations against various topical issues and conflicts around the world (and online, through social media). To fund daily living, Taneem is working with insurance. Taneem has a Bachelors degree with Honours in Financial Mathematics from the University of Kent.

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Good day Taneen
I like the article in general, yet could not find any references nor examples nor statistics nor even any country data or specific country issue

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I like your topic cause I’m doing a research about trafficking in sub Saharn…thanks.

I like this

This is disturbing and horrifying especially since l live in sub Saharan Africa myself…l am disgusted

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