Human Trafficking in East Africa


By Ahmed Salim 

On June 22, 2012 The East African reported a story stating that Kenya, via the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Ministry, has suspended the recruitment of its citizens to work in the Middle East after a series of complaints and reports of abuse. The BBC also reported that Kenyan maids have been barred from seeking work in the Middle East.

One of the many ways voluntary migrants end up becoming forced/involuntary migrants is by trusting labor agencies that are used as a cover for trafficking services and smuggling. Mr. Patrick Wamoto, the Political and Diplomatic secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, indicated as much: “In some cases, Kenyans are lured by unscrupulous and unregistered agents who promise non-existent and supposedly lucrative jobs to desperate and unsuspecting Kenyans.”

These reports came out a few days after the United States Department of State released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report 2012. This annual report details the state of human trafficking around the world and with it leaving the reader with more questions than answers. For the Greater Horn of East Africa (GHEA) one of the questions some people ponder is why should we care about human trafficking? While it may not be included in the top challenges facing the region: famine, terrorism, poverty, political instability and conflict, it remains important to understand for various reasons. First, human trafficking thrives when these five challenges intensify. Secondly, trafficking largely affects the poor and vulnerable. Third, the region is formally opening up its borders through the East African Community regional integration process. Will greater openness and freedom of movement reduce or intensify the human trafficking business?

Human trafficking is part of a dark but lucrative livelihood strategy that could impact the free movement of labour enshrined in the EAC regional integration process (Common Market Protocol). As the region embraces the Protocol there will be a need to have better regulation of both international and domestic recruitment agencies in order to protect voluntary migrants. 


The narratives of most reports concerning human trafficking in the region is that it is a new phenomenon. It is either seen as a surprise or not a serious problem facing the GHEA. The problem is most of these trafficking cases are not prioritized until scores of East Africans are found in distant countries like Iraq, Malaysia or Lebanon. Society and government authorities responsible for the protection of their own people have turned a blind eye to a dark economy.

In October 2011 the Daily News, a local paper in Tanzania, quoted the Director of Interpol saying, “This is a new phenomenon in the country. Yes trafficking of people and sex labor slavery have been there but it has not exploded to this magnitude.” Such statements suggest that authorities may be aware of the problem, but only respond publicly when a dramatic event occurs and cannot be ignored. The anti-trafficking unit at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Tanzania conceded that “There is a lack of public awareness and this is a very big obstacle in the fight against this vice [trafficking].

Soon after the Director of Interpol’s statement, 20 Somali nationals were found suffocated to death in a truck. They were on their way to South Africa along the Mikumi-Iringa highway and their bodies were dumped in the Ruaha River. Morogoro regional police commander, Ms. Adolphina Chialo, indicated that there was a “growing racket of people transporting Somali nationals in containers that are used for cargo and petroleum products, putting their lives at risk.” However, the official government position seemed to downplay the issue:

“The government [of Tanzania] has said human trafficking in the country isn’t so serious compared to other countries in the world. Responding to a basic question by Faida Bakari who said there was currently human trafficking in the country, which was against human rights, Home Affairs Deputy Minister Ambassador Khamis Kagasheki said it wasn’t a serious issue.”

On May 15, 2011 The Citizen newspaper also had a piece on human trafficking that contradicted the position expressed by the government and highlighted this information divide. The newspaper indicated that there were 114 cases of human trafficking and illegal migration in a span of two months.

In light of such statements, it is fair to ask at what point the problem becomes sufficiently serious for the state to accord it the attention that it deserves. 


Were the EAC and broader GHEA to completely liberalize the cross-border movement of labour, would it reduce involuntary migration? Interestingly, the share of a total population that chooses to migrate, even when borders are open, is quite small. A recent World Bank report titled “Reshaping Economic Geography of East Africa: From Regional to Global Integration” makes this point.

It seems that more open borders in the region could lead to an increase in voluntary migration, but only over short distances. However, the impact of more open borders on human trafficking (involuntary migration), especially over longer distances beyond the GHEA region is more difficult to forecast.

One possibility is that the resulting larger territory across which people can move more freely could provide a deeper pool from which traffickers could ‘source’ the labour they need to move further afield. Additionally, the market for domestic trafficking would be expanded so that, for example, the labour of rural girls who would normally be moved to towns and cities within national borders could now be brokered across the wider GHEA, without crossing borders beyond it. Other countries’ experiences suggest however that more open borders seem to encourage human trafficking.

Some of the questions to ask revolve around how to build the capacity of national and regional systems to respond in a timely and responsible manner to the human trafficking challenges that will emerge from more open borders. What institutions need to be engaged? What new skills/knowledge need to be embedded in them? What kinds of partnerships need to be developed?


Are traffickers providing services that should be surfaced and regulated so as to protect the migrants and legitimize their labour brokerage services? Could this be the only way to prevent voluntary migrants from being trafficked? Labour brokerage is a legitimate business but in the context of the GHEA, it is essentially unregulated. 

A way to protect voluntary migrants and reduce the risk of them becoming indentured would be to regulate the labour brokerage industries in the source countries of the GHEA. Having a regulatory authority enforcing minimum standards on labour brokerage companies like the Uganda Veterans Development Ltd should help. As a result people seeking legitimate work through such companies reduce the risk of being trafficked and working in conditions that were never part of the plan. Lessons could be learned from Asian countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh that send skilled and unskilled labour primarily to the Middle East and the Gulf region.

Signs of this are seen in Kenya as reported by the Trafficking in Persons report, ‘In June 2011, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a directive requiring foreign employment agencies to submit to Kenyan recruitment agencies information regarding the jobs offered, the perspective employers, the terms of service, and remuneration before hiring Kenyans to work abroad.’


Download SID Trend Monitoring Report: Human Trafficking in the GHEA