The Politics of Human Trafficking and the Mystery of Africa

Tupa’s incredible account of modern day slavery begins in Namibia in southwestern Africa.  But what exactly is modern day slavery – or human trafficking?  How is it defined?  How many people are victims of trafficking today?  And how is Africa, and more specifically, a remote country like Namibia, involved?   


When it comes to definitions of human trafficking, most people look to the United Nations (UN), which, together with the International Labor Organization (ILO), have proffered various terms and descriptions throughout the 20thcentury to address a wide range of circumstances in which people have been oppressed and forced to work for little or no money. But it was not until 2000 that the UN created a so-called “internationally agreed upon definition” of human trafficking, which was put forth in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children.  Here, human trafficking was defined broadly as:


“The action of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by means of the threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim for the purposes of exploitation, which includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery or similar practices, and the removal of organs.  Consent of the victim is irrelevant where illicit means are established.”


This definition has basically remained the same since 2000.  Generally, it strives to highlight three fundamental characteristics of human trafficking: (1) the processof trafficking, including methods of recruitment, transportation, harboring, and/or receipt of individuals; (2) the meansof trafficking, including the application of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability; and (3) the purposeof trafficking, including for reasons having to do with sex, labor, and other exploitive purposes. In the UN’s typically self-conscious scramble for a politically negotiated bottom-line of linguistic inclusivity, its definition of human trafficking captures each of these elements fairly well, albeit in a kind of generic, list-serve-like manner.


It goes without saying that various forms of slavery and human trafficking have always existed.  So, it is interesting to note the current buzz around the topic.  Prior to recent discussions on “trafficking,” a term that was itself redefined by the UN from its original application at the beginning of the 20thcentury, when it referred to women (almost exclusively white) who were moved across national borders for purposes of forced prostitution, it could be argued that there was a period when the possibility of slavery and forced exploitation were largely downplayed or ignored.  This was particularly true when it came to sub-Saharan Africa, where one would be hard-pressed to find any kind of extended or meaningful discussion on the topic prior to the late 1990’s, when terms like “modern slavery” and “contemporary forms of slavery” were beginning to be applied to certain situations on the continent and elsewhere in discussions that directly led up to the UN’s internationally agreed upon definition. Prior to the late 1990’s, however, and stretching back throughout much of the 20thcentury, it was as if human trafficking in Africa did not exist at all.  Much of this denial can be traced back to European colonial governments, who were almost certainly hesitant to broach the subject since the extensive migrant labor systems they established in their respective colonies were themselves an uncomfortable fit with almost every definition of slavery and trafficking out there.  But even as an army of government administrators and bureaucrats faded away and limped back to Europe, the Cold War provided an entirely new yet equally effective context for ignoring human trafficking by placing it so far down the list of global concerns as to become virtually non-existent.  Like so many issues, it was not something that international aid packages and other forms of leverage were anchored to when it came to Africa and the rest of the Third World.  Simply put, slavery was not important enough.


The general absence of human trafficking from the public consciousness throughout much of the 20thcentury is in stark contrast to its most recent resurrection, during which it has become a topic of intense focus.  In less than twenty years, there has been a profusion of books, reports, and other publications on the subject, as well as an explosion of both governmental and non-governmental agencies dedicated to the issue.  In fact, so many organizations and international bodies have devoted themselves to eradicating human trafficking that it can be difficult to keep track of all the acronyms, descriptive terms, reports, media sound bites, and general chatter that surrounds the issue these days.  This army of concerned organizations has engendered a wide range of approaches to human trafficking, some of which are taken for granted while others are decidedly explicit to the point of being both defensive and dogmatic. One can simply peruse the Internet to get a sense of the varying approaches involved as well as the heightened sense of fervor around the topic.  Today, human trafficking is approached from almost every angle imaginable, and is associated with international organized crime, migration and border control, morality and human rights, labor and occupational issues, the public health arena, and as a phenomenon that is almost if not completely synonymous with prostitution.  In the United States, the different approaches to human trafficking have become increasingly polarized by a host of special interest groups and political lobbyists.  Such groups range across the entire political continuum and contribute to the divisive nature of the human trafficking arena.  They include ultra conservative and quasi-religious groups as well as feminist scholars and academics.  While the former tend to sterilize and simplify the complex set of circumstances surrounding the issue, the latter can theorize the issue to the point of absurdity. In the end, the definitions of and approaches to human trafficking (and the limited resources linked to them) have more to do with debates from the ivory tower and the vagaries of politics and policy making than to how it actually occurs on the ground.  Add to this mix the need for most organizations to provide simple, straightforward explanations and sound bites to funders, the media, and other stakeholders, and it is easy to see how the complex social, political, and economic realities that shape human trafficking and the varied experiences of individuals involved – whether they are defined as victims or perpetrators – can become overly simplified and dramatically skewed.


Enter the UN, which has been intent on providing some order to the chaos, at least as much as possible from on high.  One of their first orders of business was to develop a repository of evidence-based knowledge to better identify human trafficking patterns around the world.  But for this to happen you actually need some reliable numbers and, if anything, the global statistics on human trafficking are patchy, unreliable, and wildly inaccurate. The uncertainty of the data is reflected in the sheer range of worldwide trafficking estimates made by different organizations, as well as the often inexplicable adjustments made by specific organizations from year to year. When you combine the underground nature of human trafficking and the different approaches to it with the ambiguities and limitations of data collection, you end up with a very messy picture.  In addition, the UN now collects trafficking data from over 150 source countries, most of which lack a clear process for exactly how they identify trafficking victims.  It leaves one wondering how any kind of aggregated numbers can be put forward at all.


Yet numbers and a slew of statistics are exactly what the UN has been churning out since 2006.  The fact they do so with a long list of caveats and an ongoing dialogue about the severe limitations of the data does not entirely excuse the rationale for putting them out in the first place.  Having said that, the UN, following the ILO, estimate that 40.3 million people were living in modern slavery at any moment in time in 2016 (this includes 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriage).  73 percent were women and girls and one in four were children.  This amounts to 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every thousand people in the world.  According to the UN, the numbers are highest in Africa, where the number of victims per thousand people jumps to an astounding 7.6.


Given the unreliable nature of trafficking numbers, one can easily find estimates that are in a much different range than those cited above, usually much higher.


For its part, the United States Department of State continues to approach trafficking via its infamous three-tier system.  Basically, it ranks countries on the basis of certain criteria as defined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed by congress in 2000.  In theory at least, countries are ranked in terms of their compliance with the TVPA and the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.  Countries designated as Tier 3 – the lowest rung – may be subject to sanctions by the US government, including the withdrawal of foreign funding and opposition when it comes to seeking development-related assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  The intent of the TVPA is to provide measurable benchmarks and subsequent leverage to individual countries and their efforts to combat human trafficking.  Yet, and as many critics have pointed out, the tier system is highly problematic not only because of the poor quality of the data, but because political and ideological factors often have as much if not more to do with a country’s tier status than anything else.  Congress has even been known to recommend changes in tier rankings on the basis of such vacuous notions as “policy appeasements.”  As a result, a growing number of critics have called on the US to end the tier-based ranking system, suggesting that it has absolutely no credibility or integrity at all.


The flimsy basis of the United Sates’ ranking system is most obvious in sub-Saharan Africa, where few if any countries have the capacity to provide any kind of data at all.  In fact, it is doubtful whether there is a single African government that would rank human trafficking very high on their own list of priorities. Modernization and economic development are prominent themes throughout the continent, and it is difficult to find a place in that overall framework for something like human trafficking, particularly when so many practices that may look like trafficking to the West are situated by Africans themselves in a hodge-podge of social relationships and cultural meanings involving kinship, patron-client relationships, and long-standing patterns of migrant labor.  In addition, there are more prominent and direct threats to consider like drought, HIV/AIDS, chronic unemployment, and regional violence and instability.  In the context of Africa’s ever-present and pragmatic hierarchy of needs, governments simply do not view human trafficking as a significant problem or social issue. The result is an absence of information that renders country-specific profiles almost pointless.  Yet the UN and US Department of State doggedly churn them out, resulting in a long stream of tedious, boilerplate, half-page country descriptions that are clearly recycled from year to year with few if any edits.


Namibia is a perfect example of the deficiencies associated with monitoring human trafficking in Africa.  There is simply no political will among the country’s leadership to do anything about an issue that nobody sees as a problem.  Human trafficking is not a term on the lips of politicians and community leaders, it is not discussed on radio or T.V., and there are few if any informational pamphlets or posters distributed around towns and villages in a manner similar to something like, for example, HIV/AIDS.  When asked, most Namibians would probably say that human trafficking is one of those exotic problems that happen in distant places like Europe.   The very idea of human trafficking is strikingly at odds with the social norms and cultural belief systems of the sixteen odd ethnic groups scattered throughout the country.  It defies belief that individuals could be exploited in such an extreme manner given the comprehensive safety net of extended kinship systems and traditional social obligations.  For many people, it is hard to imagine that individuals could become so isolated as to be at risk for anything resembling slavery.  Trafficking only seems to make news in Namibia when it involves rhino horns, exotic birds, plants, or diamonds – anything but people.  Like most countries in southern Africa, Namibia has prosecuted a measly handful of people for human trafficking, and there are no formal procedures in place for referring potential trafficking victims for care and support.  As its country profile states, there has never been a single report of a person being trafficked to, from, or within Namibia.


All of this makes for fairly stark reading when it comes to official reports on human trafficking in the country.  Since there are no actual numbers involved, observers are forced to rely on coarse speculations of trafficking connections with South Africa and Angola, somewhat murky rumors of Chinese run labor camps in the country, and how the San (i.e., Bushmen) population is at “high risk” (but as Namibia’s most exploited minority group, they are at high risk for just about everything).  Most reports focus heavily on legislation and, in Namibia’s case, how they have not done much of anything on the political or legislative fronts when it comes to trafficking prevention.  In fact, Namibia’s law makers are viewed as having done so little that the US Department of State downgraded the country in 2012 from a ‘Tier 2’ country to something called a ‘Tier 2 Watch List,’ an ignominious precursor to ‘Tier 3’ status and potential sanctions.  But such demotions on the pecking order of human trafficking are mystifying.  In essence, the country is a short step away from absorbing crippling sanctions for failing to take preventative measures against a problem that they themselves do not consider to be such, and for which their data-driven accusers admit to having faulty information about. While the government has enacted general laws, as they did in 2004, 2009, and 2018, one gets the sense that by and large such things are done as a matter of political course and only when under duress from external donors rather than as a matter of general perception or conviction.  In the end, nobody knows what is happening in countries like Namibia when it comes to the trafficking of human beings.