The Evolution of Counter-Trafficking in Burundi: ​​​​​​​A Promising Shift Supported by IOM  

A survivor of trafficking is training apprentices in her sewing workshop. She had the opportunity to start an income-generating business as part as the reintegration support offered by IOM. Photo: IOM Burundi 2022/Laëtitia Romain

  • Sam Whitlow | IOM Burundi, Migrant Protection and Assistance Team

Geneva – Reach every victim of trafficking. This year’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons (WDATIP) theme resonates with the inclusive approach of the Counter-Trafficking National Action Plan of the Government of the Republic of Burundi, just launched in Bujumbura. The five-year plan, developed with the support of IOM Burundi, precisely aims to reach every victim of trafficking (VoT) through strengthened identification, tailored assistance, and protection, as well as community awareness raising, all over the country.

Trafficking in Persons (TIP) is a transnational crime and a grave human rights violation of enormous scale, prevalent in peaceful regions as well as in conflict and disaster areas. Burundi is not spared; it is a country of origin, transit, and in some cases, destination for VoTs. Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable, luring them with promises of a better future. In Burundi, vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the recurrent climate emergencies affecting the country, especially sudden-onset disasters like floods and landslides that drive displacement, poverty, and lack of work opportunities, particularly in the poorest and most rural provinces. There is ongoing recognition of the intersections amongst displacement, climate change, and the heightened risk of trafficking – especially for women and children – as highlighted by the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons and the US Department of State in its analysis of Burundi in the 2023 TIP report

Since 2010, IOM has worked to strengthen the government’s capacity to better respond to and govern numerous migration challenges, including trafficking in persons, in line with the tenth objective of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and target 8.7 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. IOM Burundi simultaneously provides direct assistance to VoTs in Burundi through protection services, reintegration efforts and prevention measures at the community level.  

Constructing a clear picture of the prevalence of human trafficking in Burundi is difficult due to the criminal nature of the phenomenon; yet this context is extremely important in developing a tailored response. Based on IOM Burundi statistics between June 2021 and June 2023, 85 per cent of the 1,160 presumed victims of trafficking identified by IOM were women or girls. Single female parents were the most targeted demographic group and findings suggest that about half of all VoTs experienced gender-based violence (GBV) before or during exploitation, in line with global trends. Cross-border trafficking was found to be the main form of trafficking, with 20 per cent trafficked abroad to regional countries and 66 per cent to Gulf states, as compared to the 14 per cent of victims who were exploited within Burundi. The VoTs supported by IOM Burundi reported being subjected mainly to forced labour and slavery-like practices, as well as to imposed marriages or sexual servitude.  

To address this crime, the government has sharpened its efforts to combat TIP in recent years, leading to significant progress that aligns with the four pillars that underpin its counter-trafficking response: prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership. In 2012, the government ratified the Palermo Protocol, joining 147 other signatories. Prosecution in Burundi has since evolved towards more legislative grounds; new anti-trafficking legislation was introduced in 2014 and integration of its punitive measures into the official criminal code followed in 2017. The government and IOM then worked together to translate the law into Kirundi, removing a restrictive language barrier and allowing more citizens to access this critical information. To further strengthen the law’s efficiency, all high court magistrates received sensitization training on relevant anti-trafficking legal measures in 2023. 

The 2022 establishment of the National Commission of Concertation and Follow-up for the Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Persons (NC), under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, replaced an Ad Hoc committee and now plays a major role in Burundi’s counter-trafficking efforts. The NC convenes monthly with IOM and other partners to assess objectives, results, and needs. Critical CT protocols were developed, inter alia, the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to Combat TIP (launched in February 2023) and the Counter-Trafficking National Action Plan 2023-2027 (launched in July 2023). The NC and IOM are also supported by a growing base of community focal points with mandates for the identification and service referral of trafficking victims; these types of networks address trafficking flows at ground level and ensure that no one is left behind.  

IOM has also been facilitating international collaboration and exchanges, including visits between the governments of the United Republic of Tanzania in 2018 and the Republic of Tunisia in 2019 and 2022, resulting in deepened communication on best practices and recommendations towards the fight against human trafficking.  

Member from the Tunisian Counter-Trafficking delegation visiting a temporary shelter hosting victims of trafficking referred by IOM and other organizations to their local partner in Muyinga province, Burundi. ©IOM Burundi 2022/ Triffin Ntore

The results driven by these efforts are reflected by Burundi’s recent upgrades in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. After 10 years of Tier 3 rankings, the country moved up to the Tier 2 “Watch List” in 2021. In 2022, Burundi received an official Tier 2 ranking and maintained this position in the 2023 report, now featuring amongst the most advanced countries in the region with regard to counter-trafficking efforts.  

However, challenges remain to sustain this promising evolution. Colonel Epitace Masumbuko, president of the NC, acknowledges his country’s progress including the launch of the National Action Plan, which will guide all actors on the concrete actions to be taken to effectively fight against human trafficking but highlights the need to aim higher. He notes that in the future, cooperation with regional institutions must be enhanced to further strengthen the response against this brutal crime. In his call for partnerships towards this noble fight, he emphasizes that the elimination of trafficking requires the truest efforts of all involved. 

Besides the need for strengthened collaboration amongst cross-border actors and institutions to improve partnerships, paths of improvement can be found within each pillar, alongside the recommendations set forward by the 2023 US TIP report. Underpinning the different challenges is the need to accurately identify every victim, a process that will require Burundi to expand on its recent successes with data collection and standardization. Prevention must be supported by the development and expansion of ground-level awareness campaigns, especially in rural or border communities. A continued growth in the number of trainings for law enforcement officials is essential to bolster prosecution efforts, ensuring effective implementation of penalties and the access to justice for victims. Protection capacities could be enhanced by establishing more dedicated assistance centres for VoTs, similar to those that already exist for victims of GBV in Burundi. Continuous capacity-building of the focal points and means to support the victims in their reintegration are essential, as well as the potential victims to avoid getting caught in the traffickers’ nets.

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