ETHIOPIA: The plight of trafficking in persons: a global scene

Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Walta Information Center
Eastern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

On several occasions, the Ethiopian media have reported about the prevalence of illegal trafficking in persons, mostly to the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula. The prevalence of illegal trafficking of children and women— both internal and translational crimes are grave concerns to Ethiopia. In ETV's Amharic news special reportage on 1st July, it was indicated that most Ethiopian women illegally trafficked to Dubai have been exposed to domestic violence. A woman approached by the reporter but sought anonymous said that she had suffered from injustices, denials of her eight month wages, her freedom of movement prohibited as she does not have resident permit. She added that she had been lured into the trap by the illegal employment broker in Addis Ababa. She says the trouble begins upon arrival at Dubai International Airport for trafficked women will encounter risks—labour exploitation, awaiting a different job environment and harassment. She was prohibited from returning home as she was unable to produce residential permit. This prompted me to write this piece. As a background, I focus on the magnitude of the plight at a global level and the measures being taken to address this scourge.

Trafficking in persons is a serious crime in all parts of the world. The prevalence of trafficking in persons, legally or illegally is prevalent across the globe. Studies show that children, women and boys are trafficked legally or illegally from source countries to recipient countries for forced labour, commercial sexual exploitation, begging, drug smuggling, forced marriages, suicide bombers and what have you. The plight of this crime is a grave concern— requiring nations and global actors to implement the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which was adopted by the United Nations in December 2000. The Preamble of the Protocol reads as : “Declaring that effective action to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, especially women and children, requires a comprehensive international approach in the countries of origin, transit and destination that includes measures to prevent such trafficking, to punish the traffickers and to protect the victims of such trafficking, including by protecting their internationally recognized human rights. Poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunity, social upheaval, and political instability facilitate traffickers' ability to recruit victims. As is self-explanatory from the title, the Protocol identifies three mechanisms so as to address the scourge: prevention, prosecution and protection of victims, particularly women and children. A global organization encompassing relevant UN agencies and other international organizations collectively called “The Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT), is engaged in combating trafficking in persons. Here follows the mechanisms ICAT identifies to address the scourge :


In practice, counter-trafficking prevention efforts have focused either on alleviating the factors identified as making people vulnerable, or on reducing demand. Prevention efforts are largely characterized by information provision, education, and communication campaigns that target poorer countries from which victims of trafficking are known to come. These campaigns generally attempt to highlight the risks of trafficking; aiming, for example, to convince aspirant female migrants of the certainty that sexual exploitation and abuse lie at the end of the migration road. Given that there has been no clear decline in the numbers of trafficked persons being identified in destination countries, this version of the source control approach to trafficking prevention is unlikely to be succeeding in any significant way. For greater impact, trafficking prevention efforts may first need to acknowledge that migration is an imperative for many people in source countries. Lacking appropriate employment or educational opportunities at home, they see migration as a natural and necessary step to achieving their potential as individuals, or ensuring the survival or prosperity of their families. Counter-trafficking information campaigns which link migration to hardship or abuse may resonate only as an abstraction if unaccompanied by viable employment or educational alternatives. While there has been a welcome increase in the number of counter-trafficking information campaigns that provide advice on safe migration to aspirant migrants in source countries, these are also unlikely to have a significant impact if they are not reinforced by sufficient legal migration options. There is a clear need for opening and making accessible more legal channels of migration in order to balance the demand for labour and services with the supply. Therefore, prevention strategies have to go deeper and beyond criminalization. They must tackle the root causes of migration and exploitation. Relatively large investments have been made in countries of origin to reduce trafficking, but comparatively little has been achieved to address demand in developed countries: demand for cheap labour, goods and services which drive exploitation practices. Among its broad range of initiatives, IOM launched a campaign called “Buy Responsibly” which urges consumers, particularly in developed countries, to consider more critically whether the production of goods and services could involve trafficked persons.


The overall goal of the counter trafficking work of IOM as defined in a 1999 IOM Council Document and endorsed by our Member States is “to curtail migrant trafficking and to protect the rights of migrants caught up in the practice.” To this end, over the past 15 years IOM has implemented over 500 projects in almost 100 countries covering all areas of activity referred to in the Protocol . IOM offers direct assistance to victims of trafficking in collaboration with its partners. This includes accommodation in places of safety, medical and psychosocial support, development of skills and vocational training, reintegration assistance, and the options of voluntary, safe and dignified return to countries of origin, or relocation to third countries in extreme cases.

An additional emerging trend concerns ‘mixed flows' of migrants and the need for protection and assistance mechanisms that can be afforded to vulnerable and exploited migrants in trafficking-like situations or those who are at risk of being trafficked/potential trafficking victims. Given the difficulties inherent in the identification and the protection of victims of trafficking, some international actors, including IOM, are exploring a “needs-first” approach to victim protection, particularly in the context of mixed migration flows. Rather than screening for indicators of trafficking as a first step, this approach calls for an assessment of the protective needs of vulnerable migrants in order to provide humanitarian assistance based on their trauma, hardship or condition, as opposed to their migration category. By creating a “needs first” protection framework for all vulnerable migrants, the safe space created may circumvent some of the existing identification hurdles and encourage trafficked persons to share their experiences.


Attempts to investigate and prosecute traffickers in the past years have resulted in comparatively few successes. Trafficking in persons is still a new crime in most countries, and while widespread ratification of the Protocol came quickly - the Protocol entered into force only three years after it was available for signature - it has taken longer for states to promulgate corresponding national legislation and most challengingly, to enforce legislation. The task of prosecuting trafficking offences is further complicated by the difficulty of identifying victims, and the reality that few of those identified wish to support a prosecution, as well as the challenges of gathering evidence to prosecute traffickers in the absence of the victim's testimony.

Added to this are the complexities (and expenses) of prosecuting a crime for which the perpetrators and evidence are often scattered across countries, as well as the challenge of securing the cooperation of law enforcement officials in other jurisdictions, sometimes on the far side of the world. Despite such limitations in collecting criminal intelligence, protection measures for trafficked persons should not however be linked to obligatory cooperation with law enforcement. An additional finding from the fieldwork recently undertaken by IOM on the right to residence for trafficked persons was that there are trust issues when the trafficked person is obliged to cooperate with law enforcement from the outset.