Time to Act to Stop Modern Slave Trade

For Letty – a young woman in her twenties from Gauteng – the offer was irresistible. Forced to drop out of college because of financial constraints at home and struggling to find paid work in South Africa, her friend Angela’s call seemed a lifeline.

Effusive and convincing, Angela told Letty that in Ireland she could complete her studies in less than a year and – better still – would not necessarily have to pay. There was tradition in Ireland, her friend claimed, of wealthy families offering to pay for the education of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and plenty of opportunities to work part-time to earn extra cash. She’d see whether she could find Letty such a family.

Angela contacted Letty again some weeks later. She was told to meet Danny, a Nigerian national who lived in Pretoria, and whom Angela claimed was her boyfriend. He would make all the travel arrangements. A family had been found.

But what awaited Letty in Dublin was neither education nor employment, but something much more sinister. She had fallen victim to a human trafficking syndicate. Her so-called benefactors had no intention of assisting her in obtaining an education, but had bought her over from South Africa to provide cheap domestic labour. She found herself locked up in a family home by day and forced to work as a care-giver for the family’s children. Her passport was taken.

Letty managed to escape and is now back in South Africa and recovering from her ordeal with support from the International Organization for Migration’s Southern African Counter-Trafficking Assistance Programme (SACTAP). But her story is a poignant reminder that, as the world marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of transatlantic slave trade, a modern form of slavery - human trafficking - is happening in our midst.

Human trafficking is one of the most tragic aspects of contemporary migration, with one million people estimated to have been trafficked across borders annually. The trade is now considered the third largest source of profits for transnational criminal organisations, with only drug trafficking and weapons smuggling more lucrative.

Lured by false promises of well-paying jobs and other opportunities, many victims willing accept the services offered by human traffickers without realizing the full nature of their future employment or the conditions in which they will work. Once firmly trapped in an alien environment, they are most often forced into prostitution or bonded labour to earn profits for their traffickers.

Violence, threats of violence and confiscation of identity documents and passports are used to prevent escape. The fact trafficked persons find themselves in an unfamiliar environment compounds their plight. Away from their families and social networks, it is difficult to know who to turn to for help.

Having carried out research in the region since 2002, IOM believes that trafficking in persons is flourishing in Southern Africa, with South Africa and its expanding sex industry the main destination for trafficked women in the region.

IOM estimates that at least 1,000 women are trafficked from Mozambique each year into South Africa, with poverty a huge factor in their susceptibility. After being promised jobs as waitresses, they commonly find themselves working in Johannesburg’s sex industry or sold in mining areas as “wives” and forced to act as domestic servants and sex slaves.

IOM is also aware of women trafficked to South Africa from South East Asia, Eastern Europe and other African countries. And as Letty’s experience reveals, trafficking can also personally affect the lives of individual South Africans.

Letty returned to South Africa with two other young women who were also forced to undertake domestic work in Ireland and claims to have met several other South African women in a similar predicament at a church in Ireland attended by her employers. IOM has also assisted two South Africans trafficked to the Middle-East.

South Africa is waking up to the threat of human trafficking. In 2004, South Africa signed the UN protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. This committed South Africa to criminalize trafficking and develop legislation against it.

Trafficking thrives in part because it offers traffickers high profits with relatively low risks. South Africa’s anti-trafficking legislation will help change this opportunity structure as it will add to the arsenal that law enforcement can use to prosecute traffickers.

But, to truly combat human trafficking, individuals and communities need to be actively aware of the phenomenon and what they can do to tackle it.

But recent IOM research reveals that only 31 percent of South Africans consider human trafficking a problem in South Africa, and that only 9 percent of people feel that trafficking is a problem in their own community or suburb.

When asked why they thought trafficking was a problem in South Africa, respondents’ answers ranged from worries about illegal migration to concern about trafficking victims’ human rights. No-one identified trafficking as a threat to them or their family.

IOM is responding to this by mounting public information campaigns to raise awareness of human trafficking. It is also embarking on a project to train civil society activists in South Africa to raise awareness of trafficking in their communities from the ground up.

Human trafficking is happening. We need to wake up, as individuals and as communities, to the reality of the threat. Only then can we suppress - and ultimately eradicate - this modern slave trade altogether.


Rebecca Wynn works for the IOM’s Southern African Counter-Trafficking Assistance Programme (SACTAP). Readers can call IOM’s Human Trafficking Help Line – 0800 555 999 – for information and assistance on combating trafficking.

•Names have been changed to protect identities.