As another Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting opens, it is worth looking back to the last CHOGM, held in London four years ago, to see how much progress has been made towards the key objectives. Among other laudable declarations in 2018, Commonwealth leaders called for ‘effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking, and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour’. The British government pledged an aid package to ‘help eradicate human trafficking and child exploitation in the Commonwealth’ (though it only amounted to £5.5m between 11 member states).
So how much has changed? All too little, it seems, with the trade in people seemingly an inexorable corollary of globalisation, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic’s dislocation of economies and conflicts such as the Ukraine war. Statistics are hard to come by in such a murky field but, according to one source, the overall numbers of trafficked people worldwide continue to rise, increasing from 85,613 in 2018 to 118,932 a year later, a rise of 39%.
Trafficking is found in every country, yet it is almost invisible. And it continues to be a huge problem in the Commonwealth, where about 40% of the 40.3 million victims of modern slavery are believed to live, according to the International Labour Organization. Of this number, the ILO estimated in 2016 that 4.8 million people were in forced sexual exploitation and 15.4 million had been forced into marriage.
In 2020, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime issued its Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, based on research in 148 countries. Though factors such as immigration status, substance abuse, mental state and lack of parental care are all significant, by far the biggest factor was economic need, accounting for 51% of those targeted. The UN children’s fund, Unicef, estimates that some west African countries have more than 40% of those aged five to 17 engaged in child labour.
But it is the UN statistics on trafficking that are most chilling: out of every 10 trafficking victims globally, five are women and two are girls; and of those girls, 72% were trafficked for sexual exploitation. Worse still, over the past 15 years, the UNODC found the proportion of women fell and that of girls rose.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) flagged up four stories in its press round-up this week that keenly illustrates the scale of the problem in Commonwealth countries. In Ghana, a Starr FM investigation found girls as young as 16 among 70 or so Nigerians trafficked to Koforidua and other towns in the eastern region to work in brothels in the belief they were going to jobs in restaurants, hotels and shops. ‘They are sexually exploited for at least three to four months to repay all travel expenses and other costs before they are given the freedom to operate on their own,’ it reported. One 20-year-old Nigerian featured was trafficked to Ghana and forced into sex work but then became pregnant, infected with HIV and thrown on to the street.
The annual US State Department report on trafficking concluded that although Ghana, which it classified as a Tier 2 country, was making ‘significant efforts’ to clamp down, the government ‘did not prosecute or convict any alleged sex traffickers and identified fewer victims’. It criticised the inadequate resources for law enforcement and shelters; parents who trafficked their own children could pay a fine to avoid jail. Noting that the authorities investigated 87 trafficking cases in 2020, compared with 137 cases the year before, the report added: ‘The government did not adequately address corruption in trafficking crimes, including alleged complicity from officials.’
In Malawi, a United Nations team uncovered a trafficking network operating in Dzaleka refugee camp, near the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. Kenya’s East African newspaper reported that the UNODC and Malawian police rescued girls of 12. The camp, which is run by the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, was meant to house 10,000-12,000 people but now holds 44,000 people, mostly women and children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
‘The situation was much worse than we first envisaged,’ said Maxwell Matewere, of the UNODC. ‘I even witnessed a kind of Sunday market, where people come to buy children who were then exploited in situations of forced labour and prostitution.’ He has since trained camp staff and police in how to detect and respond to trafficking.
The State Department, which also classifies Malawi as Tier 2, criticised ‘widespread corruption, coupled with a lack of capacity and resources’, especially police complicity. It noted that Malawian victims of sex and labour trafficking had been identified in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia, as well as in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with girls recruited for domestic service in the Gulf exploited in sex trafficking.
In Cyprus, 12 people were convicted of trafficking this month, with another 33 cases in court. The Cyprus Mail reported that 231 victims of trafficking had been identified, out of 1,122 suspected cases, between 2015 and 2021. The recent spate of convictions follows the State Department’s decision to downgrade Cyprus to Tier 2, ‘mainly because there have not been any trafficking convictions, despite several prosecutions, for the past four years,’ the newspaper reported.
Even in Canada, classified as Tier 1 for its exemplary efforts by the US, sex trafficking is apparently flourishing, according to a CBC report on a new Manitoba government bill to counter the trade. The families minister, Rochelle Squires, said 400 children and youths were estimated to be trafficked each year in the province’s visible sex industry. But she suggested the true number was closer to 4,000 if the underground and online trade was included.
In a 2020 report on modern slavery, Walk Free and the CHRI argued that Commonwealth governments had failed to tackle the problem and progress was ‘far too slow’. While the UNODC says more traffickers are facing justice every year, with numbers convicted globally per 100,000 people nearly tripling since 2003, this may just be down to better detection.
Improving training for officials, police, medics and others on the frontline will help identify more people at risk but, ultimately, what links all trafficking victims is a lack of opportunities in their own communities. As marginalised groups, such as undocumented migrants and indigenous people, are more vulnerable to trafficking, so greater social inclusion is key. And if, as the UNODC found, economic need is the biggest driver, then investing in people by putting money into education and jobs must be part of the answer.
Four years on from the London CHOGM, a coalition of civil society organisations, human rights bodies and charities, led by the CHRI, has issued another joint statement calling for Commonwealth leaders in Kigali to commit to a host of measures to eradicate trafficking, such as improving cross-border collaboration, data-sharing and the involvement of survivors, strengthening criminal justice, and tackling exploitation in supply chains. It remains to be seen how much genuine progress will be made by the time of the next CHOGM.
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board