Women arrested during a raid at Nyali Police Station in Mombasa last year. They were allegedly part of an international human trafficking syndicate. Young girls are now more likely to fall into this trap. 

| File | Nation Media Group

Why Kenya leads in human trafficking

Kenya is now among the leading nations in human smuggling and trafficking in the world, with Nairobi and the seaport of Mombasa emerging as key transit points for young and educated East Africans flocking Southeast Asia in search for greener pastures.

Intriguingly, while the government often recites the tired ‘leaving no stone unturned until perpetrators are brought to book’, security experts and researchers warn that Kenya may have lost this war, citing the involvement of senior government and United Nations officials in the murky business.

The allure of Nairobi as a transport, aviation and technology hub in East and Central Africa gives the Kenyan capital a head-start over other cities in the region, researchers say, since it provides a direct link to the Tiger economies of Southeast Asia, where a growing number of Ugandans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Congolese, Tanzanians and nationals of central African countries part with hefty sums to make the trip.

The regions that often report high traffic of fortune hunters are North Africa and West Africa, which according to a comparative study by ENACT, now face competition from Kenya, an important transit point for travellers to the Middle East and Asia – India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines and Laos.

“However, once in Southeast Asia trafficked victims are forced to work for cybercrime gangs and prostitution rings in countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar,” stated Willis Okumu, a senior researcher, East Africa, ENACT Project, Nairobi.

According to ENACT, a non-governmental organisation that researches and documents transnational organised crimes the situation in East Africa, human trafficking is getting out of hand with senior government officials joining the gravy train estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

The report says, “Human trafficking has worsened in West Africa (+0.63), due in part to a rise in the number of migrants travelling to Gulf countries, where they are then subjected to exploitation and forced labour. The economic toll of the global health crisis on household income in many countries is another possible explanation for individuals’ heightened vulnerability to exploitation.”

The crime index is measured on a scale of 0-10, with 0 the lowest and 10 the highest incidence. In the previous report published in 2022, all countries in East and Central Africa had 5+ score. The push factors that send West Africans into neo-slavery in Asia are similar to what has led to a phenomenal soar in the number of East Africans keen to migrate to the Gulf.

Traditionally, the human trafficking was tied to bad governance, war and natural disasters. The perpetrators in such cases were militias. However, the Executive Director of the Executive Protection Project, George Musamali, said it is difficult to put a finger on the magnitude of human trafficking, a crime that has tentacles in the Democratic urundi, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea. 

 “Every day, three busloads of illegal immigrants arrive in Kenya with people from Uganda, DRC and South Sudan, but vanish as soon as they go through the immigration border point. Some are ferried to Kakuma Refugee Camp in the north. Others travel to Nairobi, where they vanish into thin air. Senior government officials are involved, which in part explains why and how there are thousands unprocessed passports applications as priority is given to foreigners,” said Musamali.

Up to June, Internal Security Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki disclosed that there was a backlog of 85,000 passport applications. Musamali said the backlog was caused by senior government and UN officials who put a premium on applications by foreigners. “The security of the country has been compromised and it is difficult for CS Kindiki to weed out the bad elements who work under him,” he said. Prof Kindiki declined calls to respond to the allegation.

However, the EANCT report, a collaboration with Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), said: “As the Index highlights, while criminal militias, insurgencies, loose criminal networks and various forms of foreign criminal actors all play an important role in the criminal landscape across Africa, it is state-embedded actors that are the most dominant vectors of organised crime, facilitating and even taking part in illicit economies up and down the continent.

What’s more, state-embedded actors are also the fastest growing criminal actor type since 2019, due in large part to the Covid-19 pandemic.” East Asia is a booming market for human trafficking with cybercrime listed as the fastest growing crime in the region and by extension the world.

To illustrate the gravity of the problem, Musamali said law-enforcement had failed because other than civil servants, senior officials of the United Nations agencies in Nairobi allegedly provide safe passage for traffickers.

“Kenya is a safe haven for human traffickers. Early this year, a whistle-blower at Kakuma Refugee Camp was murdered when she raised the alarm. The information was suppressed by government officials and UN agencies in Nairobi, and even the complaint was escalated to Geneva (headquarters of refugee agency UNHCR), the report was ignored,” said Musamali.

A senior official of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Eva Sibanda Noma, acknowledged the gravity of the crime, but shied away from delving into details. Instead, Sibanda offered a social media plan developed for the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons by IOM Regional Office for Horn of Africa and Yemen to shed light on the human trafficking trends.

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) said the crimes have been understated by government agencies tasked with protection of Kenyans against labour exploitation. Cotu Secretary-General Francis Atwoli took issue with the Ministry of Labour, police and the Judiciary for failing to enforce the law. Atwoli told The Weekly Review that Cotu had taken up the issue with President William and pushed for stiff penalties for perpetrators of human trafficking.

Atwoli said Kenya has not addressed the “social and structural vulnerabilities” that human traffickers exploit to rake in loads of financial benefits. Post-pandemic findings by transnational organised crime researchers showed that Kenya is on course to overtaking West Africa, which, according to IOM, retains its status as a leading source of illegal African migrants to Europe.