COVID-19 Is Making Human Trafficking Much, Much Worse

Traffickers are utilising a steep rise in unemployment and illegal child marriage to exploit vulnerable people in Kenya.
February 25, 2021, 3:40pm
A health worker dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) prepares to test someone during a mass testing for COVID-19 coronavirus provided free of charge by the Kenyan government in the Kibera slum in Nairobi.
A health worker dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) prepares to test someone during a mass testing for COVID-19 coronavirus provided free of charge by the Kenyan government in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

The COVID pandemic has caused an “alarming” uptick in child marriages across Kenya. Although illegal, more and more families are resorting to marrying off their girls for a dowry payment that will help keep them afloat.

Experts fear this worrying trend will not only reverse efforts made to eradicate child marriage, but act as a silent precursor to trafficking as criminals have a bigger playground to “hunt” and “trap” already-vulnerable young girls under the guise of cultural traditions. Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) has reported rescuing over 150 children from trafficking syndicates since 2017. 

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Rebekah Lisgarten, Director of Operations at Stop The Traffik Global — a UK-based anti-trafficking organisation — tells VICE World News that pandemic-induced financial distress is making individuals and families increasingly vulnerable to being exploited by criminals.

“During this pandemic, we are seeing a rise in people suddenly facing financial hardship due to factors such as job losses,” Lisgarten says. “When people are stressed, the due diligence they take on a job often reduces because they are focussed on finding a way to put food on the table, pay their rent, and survive.”

Lisgarten continues: “Distress also impacts discernment between legitimate jobs and those that are potentially too good to be true; particularly in cases where people were looking to work in industries that they had never looked into before. This makes it harder for victims to [ask themselves] ‘Is it normal that they've asked for my passport?’ Is it normal that they are picking me up at four in the morning?’”   

Layla* is sitting on a wooden stool in the far-left corner of her room, trembling. 

When the prospect of greener pastures had presented itself in the form of a chirpy “agent” who promised Layla a well-paying job as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, she jumped at the opportunity. The thought of earning 47,000 Kenya shillings per month (£300) – a figure that was three times her current income – seemed almost too good to be true. All she needed was her passport. The agent assured her that he would take care of the rest.

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As her flight took off Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, she dreamt of soon being able to help alleviate her family’s money problems. But unbeknownst to Layla, she was about to be sucked into a vortex that was almost impossible to escape.

Like countless victims of human trafficking, Layla arrived in Saudi Arabia and soon discovered that her job did exist – but it was far from what she had envisioned and what she was told prior to her departure. Misty eyed, she recalls having her passport taken away, and being thrust into a dark world of gruelling forced labour and sexual exploitation. 

“I was taken to a household where I was forced to work for 16 hours a day - almost every single day of the week,'“ she tells VICE World News. “I never got a day off, and I never got paid because they told me they had sent the money to my agent. Every day I faced verbal and physical abuse from the woman I worked for, and when she was not around, I was sexually abused by her husband and his friends.”

Layla is not alone. According to the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report, she was one of the 853 victims of human trafficking from Kenya in 2019. Trapped in the notorious Kafala System which binds foreign workers to their employer, or Kafeel, who sponsored their visa, Layla saw no way out. 

“The helplessness I felt… I wouldn't wish it on anyone, not even on my worst enemy,” she says. “I couldn't even escape, you know?.…I wasn’t even allowed to leave the house without permission. It was like my entire life was stolen from me right in front of my own eyes. My freedom… my dignity...I can't tell you how many nights I cried myself to sleep.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its one-year anniversary, a new report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warns that the perfect storm for human trafficking is silently brewing in its shadow.

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The annual study finds the pandemic-induced rise in “global suffering” has created a gold-mine for traffickers who are infamous for thriving in socio-economic turbulence. As restrictions on movement drive life online, traffickers have followed suit, utilising internet advertisements and social media to hunt and coerce new victims into exploitation.

In the third quarter of 2020, the economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic pushed Kenya into its first recession in almost two decades – an unprecedented economic downturn that has left more than 1.7 million Kenyans redundant, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. Although The World Bank forecasts Kenya’s economy will have a “strong rebound” in 2021, there is growing concern that short-comings in social protection programmes will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. Thus far, The National Treasury has allocated KSH 88.4 billion (£571,000) in funding towards poverty reduction and social protection for vulnerable groups”. Whilst impacts of funding have been far-reaching, Oxfam highlights that this budget covers only “14 percent of the monthly basic needs of a family of four in Nairobi’s informal settlements.”

“The pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and marginalised members of the society,” says Jakob Christensen, Programme Manager at Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART) in Kenya. “Victims of human trafficking are consistently among this group and are often overlooked”. 

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In an attempt to spearhead human trafficking, Kenya implemented the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act in 2010. Under this act, persons found guilty of trafficking as part of an organised criminal group are liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than five years, or a fine of not less than five million shillings (£32,250), or both. The Act was designed to dismantle illicit criminal networks and be a strong deterrent to syndicates involved in the trafficking of persons. But fighting human trafficking in Africa – a lucrative industry which the Africa Centre of Strategic Studies estimates to be worth $13.1 billion – has not been easy.

National Crime Research Centre Kenya has flagged corruption as one of the main facilitators of human trafficking as illicit human movement organisations often rely on the complicity of officials to execute their criminal operations. Lawrence Okoth, Cyber-Security Specialist at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, details that criminals often work in collusion with “crooked state officials at the National Registration Bureau and the Department of Immigration Services” to generate fictitious documents, such as passports and birth certificates. 

In 2019, DCI’s Anti-Human Trafficking and Child Protection unit intercepted two women – Isabella Walubengo and Kerubo Nyaoke – who ring-led an elaborate child trafficking syndicate. After intercepting them in a dramatic raid, detectives seized American and Kenyan passports that bore the names of the children they were attempting to traffick to Kuwait. The two women were found guilty of child trafficking and were sentenced to 30 years in prison. They are two of the 22 individuals that were prosecuted under the human trafficking law in Kenya in 2019 and embodied the 30 percent of human trafficking offenders in East Africa who were female. The UNODC has found that most offenders that were investigated, convicted and prosecuted for human trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa were men. 

Corruption has also been found to significantly hinder investigations and data-gathering efforts as victims of human trafficking often steer away from reporting their cases to the police due to distrust and fear of the criminal justice system. Lawyers from the International Bar Association highlight that prosecutions for trafficking are rare, and in the event that they do take place, lawyers are often ill-prepared to fight the case as they struggle to secure case reports and judgements due to systemic corruption in the ranks. 

Kenya is ranked as a Tier 2 nation by The U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, signalling that although the Government of Kenya “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, it is making significant efforts to do so.” Layla was eventually rescued by the Kenya Embassy in Riyadh after her family reported her missing when they didn’t hear from her — though Layla reveals that her family had to press the embassy on the issue for months before they finally took action. 

Lisgarten tells VICE Worlds News that data gathering is crucial in the fight against human trafficking as gaps in data and intelligence make it difficult to track the impacts of COVID-19 on human trafficking trends both in Kenya, and across the globe.

“A useful analogy…is imagine if we were trying to prevent COVID,” she says, “but we had no data - we didn't know who had it, we didn't know where it was most prevalent, and we didn't know if there was a new strain, where it had come from, or who was vaccinated - we then couldn’t prevent the spread of the virus because we are reliant on that data engine.”