South Africa’s inequality, high unemployment rate and the consequent desperation to make ends meet have created opportune conditions for human traffickers. It is disturbing that there seems to be no concrete and credible data on human trafficking trends and this often leads to futile debates about whether it is real or just another scaremongering myth.
Few crimes go as unnoticed as human trafficking. This is despite the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime confirming that it is a crime common to all countries. Its global prevalence also makes it highly profitable. The hidden nature of this crime makes it difficult to trace with any measure of accuracy, which presents challenges to policing.
That is the issue that has been under the spotlight through the UN-endorsed hashtag #HumanTrafficking, trending on social media in South Africa. Scrolling down the thread of #HumanTrafficking stories, one quickly realises that human trafficking is no myth. It is real – and taking place right under our noses. The attempted abduction of a four-year-old girl, in her parent’s company, at a pizza shop in Florida, Johannesburg, confirms this.
We noted with relief that the suspect in that case was promptly arrested for attempted kidnapping and is in custody, awaiting trial. Such is the swift action required to show an effective response to child abductions and other forms of human trafficking. However, it is deeply concerning to note that, according to Missing Children of South Africa’s estimates, 23% of missing children never find their way back home, either due to trafficking or murder. That is 23% too many of our nation’s children who are lost without a trace.
The scourge of human trafficking does not only affect children. Women and men are also vulnerable to abduction and potential trafficking while walking casually on the streets. Once trafficked, they can be coerced into labour, marriages, begging and crime, among other nefarious things. The accounts from the #HumanTrafficking thread noted similar stories from those who escaped potential trafficking. They also talk of the involvement of organised crime syndicates behind these horrors.
Factors such as our country’s inequality, high unemployment rate and the consequent desperation to make ends meet have created the opportune conditions for human traffickers to lure unsuspecting people with job offers and other enticing opportunities. This is just one of the ways human trafficking is tied to the failure of our economy – and society – to protect our vulnerable citizens.
However, what is even more disturbing is that there seems to be no concrete and credible data on the human trafficking trends in the country. This often leads to futile debates about whether human trafficking is real or just another scaremongering myth.
Insight from the Institute of Security Studies reveals that data on human trafficking remain an “elusive, statistical nightmare”. The government and non-profit organisations offer different estimates on cases of human trafficking. This results in either an exaggeration or underrepresentation of the crimes. It does not help to raise awareness about the prevention and fight against human trafficking.
The discordant messages come out clearly when one reads through a media statement issued on 15 September 2020 by the South African Police Service (SAPS) national commissioner, which claimed that “human trafficking is not prevalent in South Africa”. Yet the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and independent research confirm that South Africa is a destination, transit and source country for human trafficking victims from the rest of Africa, and internally.
The SAPS statement told us what we already know, confirming the existence of specialised units dealing with human trafficking and related crimes. It fell short on providing details on the scale of the issue and how the matter is being handled.
The Prevention and Combating of Trafficking of Persons Act of 2013 serves as our anti-trafficking legislation. It requires that annual reports be submitted to Parliament on the implementation of the act, as well as the number of cases of human trafficking. It is unacceptable that, despite the act being law, there is still no reliable database or statistics on the levels of human trafficking taking place in the country.
Unfortunately, that offers little, if any, reassurance to the scores of South Africans who, like me, question whether the police have a full grasp of the issue.
Dr Marcel van der Watt from the Department of Police Practice at the University of South Africa studied 2,132 human trafficking-related cases, reported between 9 August 2015 and 12 December 2017 recorded by the SAPS, and found issues of data integrity. His study noted the SAPS’s inaccurate capturing of some human trafficking offences under the correct legislation. The outcomes of that study are corroborated by AfricaCheck, which found that the lack of credible and detailed information on South Africa’s human trafficking activities contributes to the challenge of combating this scourge.
More can be done to improve the accuracy and quality of human trafficking information. This could include bolstering the capacities of domestic police intelligence, including the use of independent crime intelligence research and monitoring channels to get to the crux of this issue.
In addition, there should be harsher punishments for those charged with human trafficking and related crimes. Taking these actions is essential, particularly in raising public awareness and ensuring that citizens are alert to the scale of the problem and can take the necessary precautions.
The prevalence of unemployment, poverty and the lack of accurate and quality information on human trafficking crimes means that the men, women and children of our country will remain vulnerable, and be preyed upon by human trafficking criminals. #HumanTrafficking shows that this is the reality of some South Africans.
It is also telling that human traffickers stand to benefit the most when their acts are viewed as myths and hidden from the full view of society. This has to change. Human trafficking is no myth but, rather, a nightmare come to life. DM