Three decades ago, Northern Uganda’s gruesome past with the advent of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) ushered in some of the worst cases of human trafficking that the country has experienced. The period between 1987 and 2006 saw scores of women, men and children being abducted to serve as soldiers, sex slaves as well as hard labourers. Human trafficking was, for the people of the north just a fraction of the atrocities experienced during this insurgency.

Human trafficking is defined as the illegal/unlawful movement of people from one place to another with the intention to exploit those being trafficked. To date, this heinous crime is rife and has just changed forms and Uganda serves as a source, transit and destination for trafficked victims. Within its borders and to neighbouring countries mostly children and women are tr

photo: Sven Torfinn Uganda, Kitgum, October 2003 Night commuters
photo: Sven Torfinn
Uganda, Kitgum, October 2003
Night commuters

aded as domestic servants or for commercial sexual exploitation. According to the 2013 National Annual report on Trafficking Persons, the year registered the highest levels of trafficking with 800 victims and children and women were the most victims. Of the number, 97% were children trafficked within Ugandan borders of whom 52% were females trafficked as sex slaves and maids.

Across the transatlantic borders, a new form has taken hold. Ugandans of all ages seek better economic opportunities or nkuba kyeyo (loosely translated as the search for greener pastures). The biggest exports of these nkuba kyeyo end up mostly in the Middle East and Southeast Asia as domestic workers, guards, sex workers or as recently reported, mercenaries for $600 or more. In the externalisation of labour, some people end up in gainful employment, however, it has also been exploited by traffickers who take advantage of unsuspecting victims. The report indicated that 51.7% of the trafficked victims were female while 18% merely children. The Malaba and Busia boarders were noticeably the most commonly used transit routes for traffickers and their victims.

It is not always rainbows and butterflies for many who end up in these situations because a sizable number have alleged that their destinations were not as rosy as their handlers had painted them to be. Despite the stories of how diabolical working in the Middle East is, it has not deterred those opting to leave Uganda in hope of providing for their largely poor households. Some even preferring unlicensed recruitment agencies as long as they offered a ray of hope.

The Platform for Labour Action in June 2016 produced a report titled, Assessment of Schemes, Routes and Factors that Promote Prevalence of Trafficking Persons across Borders in Uganda. In it, findings from a survey conducted with 137 Victims of International Trafficking were published, among other things, some of the reasons why they opted to take up jobs abroad.

Poverty ranked high on the list, 44% cited this as a precursor, desperation caused by living below the poverty line, many dependants as well as the prospect of getting rich quick schemes prompted them to. Unemployment also scored high on the reasons for the continued outflow of labour this coupled the ever increasing population and few jobs have burdened many young people, 35% voiced this a reason. Traffickers have indeed mastered the exploitation of their victims’ vulnerabilities.

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These socio-economic problems require government interventions without doubt and progressive strides have been made in this direction, The Ministry of Gender labour and Social Development has spearheaded the implementation of the Youth Livelihood Fund and

Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund and other social programmes in a bid to close the existing employment gaps and poverty. However, we are yet to see outcome indicators showing declines in both instances as a result of these initiatives. The ministry also issued a ban on externalisation of labour pending investigations and that did not sit well with both prospective workers and recruitment agencies with many calling for a lift on the ban.

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On the other hand, Government has profited greatly from externalisation of labour by receiving $35 million (Shs 125.8b) per month from the Middle East only. The government has even taken measures to cement this line of revenue by licensing companies and signing MOUs with respective governments like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Many questions remain on; how protected are these workers outside Uganda’s boundaries? Does the Government’s jurisdiction stop within its borders or does it extend to such nations with which legal contracts have been signed? What measures and guidelines are put in place to protect them once on foreign soil?

The Penal Code as well as The Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act, 2009 criminalise the act and the latter further institutes the Coordination Office for Preventing Trafficking in Persons under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. However, the unit has faced many challenges like understaffing and poor resource allocation leaving a lot to be desired in the execution of its mandate. Both the staffing and funding gaps ought to be fixed to crack down on the levels of trafficking of Ugandans.

Because the measures have not deterred trafficking tendencies, the US State Department report ranks Uganda under the Tier 2 watch. This means that although Uganda is making efforts to comply with the minimum requirements of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2000 it has not yet fully complied.

Therefore while government should exert more effort to crack down on this vice with the means at its disposal, long-term solutions lie in addressing household poverty and youth unemployment and keeping girls and boys in school. Prosecution and creating public awareness and strengthening border controls also go a long way in the efforts to combat trafficking. In addition, promoting security in previously or currently destabilised areas that act as hotbeds for traffickers like in the Northern and Karamoja regions respectively is important.

Parliament should draft and pass a law on externalisation of labour that will regulate the process, interpret the intricacies involved, provide a fund to help victims of trafficking in the guise of externalisation, create liaison offices in countries where Ugandans are exported to mention a few.

The general public, on the other hand, ought to be vigilant and look out for those elements that perpetrate trafficking especially within our neighbourhoods. For those seeking employment outside Uganda, leveraging the existence of licenced companies is wise because then, one stands a better chance of seeking recourse in the event of wrong doing.

Human trafficking is abhorrent, let’s all work towards eliminating it every possible way we can.