To understand the depth of the problem of human trafficking requires accurate data showing the incidences of trafficking, from recruitment to transit and eventual destination. Unfortunately, because of the secrecy around human trafficking and the disempowerment of the victims, it is difficult to get accurate data. Despite the lack of data, it is undeniable that human trafficking is inextricably linked to poverty. Many, if not all, of the victims of trafficking are from poor backgrounds, looking for a better life for themselves and for their families. Some are victims of conflicts like the Boko Haram crisis in Northern Nigeria, or the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar; internally displaced persons or refugees who become easy prey for forced prostitution, child combatants, forced labour and other conditions fed by human trafficking.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the United States Department of State both produce annual reports on human trafficking. A look at the figures from the United States 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report shows fluctuations in the figures reported by governments. There are no clear patterns on which one can draw conclusions with certainty. For instance, in the years 2014, 2015 and 2016, the Global Law Enforcement data on trafficking shows prosecutions going up from 10,051 in 2014 to 19,127 in 2015 and then declining again to 14,897 in 2016. Of those prosecuted, the number of convictions were 4,443 in 2014; 6,615 in 2015; and 9,071 in 2016. Victims identified were 44,462, 77,823 and 66,520 for the respective years. For Africa the figures were as follows: 811, 1,517 and 1,251 prosecutions for 2014 to 2016 respectively, 317, 719 and 1,119 convictions, and 9,523, 12,125, and 18,296 victims identified for the respective years. What is interesting is that whereas the victims identified in Africa represent about a quarter of the global figure, the prosecutions and convictions in Africa hover around 10% or less of the global figures.
The TIP Report attributes these fluctuations to the hidden nature of trafficking crimes, dynamic global events, shifts in government efforts and a lack of uniformity in national reporting structures. For instance, according to the Report, in the reporting year the Nigerian government decreased funding for the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP) from the previous year, including its budget for victim services.
The low reported figures for prosecutions and convictions in Africa could be the result of inadequate resources. It is also possible that corruption is a factor in the prosecution of identified cases. One of the issues that comes up in global and regional reports on human trafficking is corruption and the complicity of law enforcement officers in protecting syndicates. Where law enforcement works hand-in-hand with traffickers it is highly unlikely that such offenders will be prosecuted. In some countries, law enforcement officers moonlight as security officers for brothels and even where there is no official employment arrangement between a brothel and a law enforcement officer, the law officers demand and receive bribes to turn a blind eye to activities that offend trafficking laws. Immigration officers also work with syndicates to facilitate the passing of victims through land, sea and air borders. Where arrests are made, compromised law enforcement officers can obstruct and stall investigations, preventing the perpetrators from ever being prosecuted and held accountable for their crimes.
Another factor that could explain the low numbers of prosecutions is the exclusion of intermediaries in prosecutions. However, there is now a global push towards assigning criminal culpability to all persons who are knowingly involved in trafficking, whether directly or indirectly. As long as the persons have knowledge of what they are participating in, they should be held criminally liable. That means that a taxi driver who assists a syndicate in transporting victims from one location to another is culpable and should be punished. Such intermediaries, where they are aware of the underlying purpose of their activities, may not be able to absolve themselves of culpability by claiming that they are not part of the syndicate. Such extension of the net of culpability to include intermediaries requires proper investigation, diligent prosecution and judicial support, all of which require adequate resources from the State.
To succeed in addressing human trafficking, countries must devote the required resources to the institutions tasked with investigating and prosecuting cases. Another requisite is cooperation between countries, leveraging on the resources and expertise of other countries in the investigation and prosecution of suspects. Nigeria has most recently leveraged on this support in different ways including working with the governments of the United States of America and Germany to repatriate identified victims of human trafficking from Libya.
Organisations such as the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) and the UNODC also provide support. INTERPOL for instance, keeps a database of offenders and issues alerts to member countries, making available critical information to national police, and facilitating the apprehension of suspects. The UNODC works with governments to build their capacity in the areas of training and technical assistance. International and national non-governmental agencies also provide support in the fight against human trafficking.
National governments are also taking action in terms of new or amended legislation to create legal regimes that promote swift prosecution; and penalties that foster criminal accountability and a strong deterrence to future offenders. Raising national awareness about human trafficking issues, particularly in the areas where recruitment is high, is also critical. For instance, in the Philippines where overseas workers are encouraged for their contribution to the national economy, the government makes efforts to raise the awareness of persons interested in work overseas so that they can identify exploitation red-flags. These efforts have also created an avenue where the public as well as overseas workers can give information about suspect activities and employment agencies. Such efforts have led to the investigation of illegal recruitment agencies, the closure of non-licensed establishments, and the criminal investigation and prosecution of suspects. The official numbers are still low because illegal practice thrives underground.
Countries are beginning to give much-needed attention to the victims, providing resources to rescue, repatriate and reintegrate victims of human trafficking. Countries are stepping up to their responsibilities to their vulnerable citizens but more still needs to be done to investigate and prosecute suspects.
This article is the third part in our four-part human trafficking series. For more information on human trafficking, see Bloomsbury Professional's recent publication: Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery: Law and Practice.