When we hear about slavery we tend to think of dehumanising episodes of history such as the Holocaust or apartheid, but unbeknown to many of us, criminals still make large sums of money treating humans as a commodity.
Human trafficking is a thriving industry worth an estimated $ 150-billion (R2.3-trillion). Most shockingly human trafficking is on the rise in South Africa and southern Africa. In some studies the sub-continent is now ranked as one of the top 10 trafficking destinations in the world. Why is that so?
Marcel van der Watt, one of the top human trafficking experts in the country, talked about this during the MeCAHT conference held recently in Johannesburg. MeCAHT is an international faith-based, media-driven non-profit coalition working to reduce the incidences of human trafficking among vulnerable groups.
He said that although human trafficking is helped along by various social ills like fatherless homes, poverty and lack of education, there are two main enablers — corruption and the culture of indifference among people, which make it a lot easier for traffickers to thrive.
“In most cases, human traffickers do not operate alone – they are part of an intricate network of criminals, not only trading humans as sex slaves or cheap labour, but also trading in various things like organs, drugs and animals.
“Their modus operandi is to set up their network in a neighbourhood by compromising the key roleplayers in the community. They will befriend some local policemen, politicians or influential business owners and then lure them in by offering them things like drugs or prostitutes. When they have dirt on them, they can ask them for a ‘favour’ later on to protect them or their buddies in the network,” he said.
“If we want to stand a chance to combat this intricate network of syndicates we cannot expect to work in isolation,” said Helen Sworn, director and founder of the Chab Dai Coalition in Cambodia. She has been working in the field of counter-trafficking and abuse since 1999.
“We have to form meaningful partnerships with non-profit organisations, law enforcement, government, churches, media and the broader public to form our own network to outsmart them,” she said.
Van der Watt said one of the challenges is that there are no concrete data or statistics available as these crimes are part of a dark, secretive world that is in hiding.
“Most victims don’t even identify as such as they have been so indoctrinated into a lifestyle of addiction and work that they fear change. These people are not likely to report such a crime even if they leave the industry.”
He further explained that if these crimes are reported they are usually captured as a rape or sexual assault or other type of crime.
“And then the victims may never see justice as the dockets go missing or the judge is compromised. Government is also not forthcoming with statistics on this,” he said.
Van der Watt said that as a society we need to begin to hold the government accountable. “We also need to be more mindful of issues in our society that are not addressed properly, creating an environment for these traffickers to easily get away with what they are doing.”
He urged professionals like academic researchers, doctors and psychologists to become experts in this field and to be able to testify in courts, so that some victims lucky enough for their case to be heard will be able to rely on the support of expert witnesses.
“We urgently need the government to step in and develop a dedicated anti-corruption strategy to rid the country of our weaknesses,” he said.
Sworn said corruption should not be an excuse for anti-trafficking initiatives not to partner with the government.
“We need to partner with each other in any way possible to do what we can to protect victims of human trafficking and we should all unite under a clear vision to save them,” she said.